The Ethics of Human Rights (82): The Link Between Human Rights and Social Mobility

Most of us think about social mobility as some kind of political ideal or even as a necessary feature of a just society. Many theories of justice make space for social mobility, as they do for equality of opportunity, fairness, the wellbeing of the worst off etc. And indeed, it’s hard to be against social mobility. Cynics might say that politicians extol the virtues of social mobility in order to camouflage or even justify actual inequalities (“if people can be socially mobile, then the resulting inequalities are deserved”, or “inequalities aren’t bad because people can be mobile and escape their class”). However, it’s not because a concept is misused for political reasons that it loses it’s theoretical or even practical value. If democracy is used as a cover to invade Iraq, then that doesn’t mean democracy is bad.

Hence, we should embrace social mobility. Human rights as well are often seen as a political ideal or a requirement of justice. How do social mobility and human rights relate to each other? At first sight, there’s no relationship at all, except that both are part of a lot of theories of justice. Social mobility is about the possibility to enter another – usually higher – income class than the one you were born in (the one of your parents). Human rights, on the other hand, are generally silent about income, except in rare cases such as the right to a decent standard of living or the right to unemployment insurance. And those cases are about minimum levels of income, not about the equal opportunity to achieve any level of income. Most human rights aren’t about income at all, let alone changes in income. Hence, social mobility is not required by human rights.

Does that mean that a society without social mobility can be one where all human rights are perfectly respected? It depends. Let’s imagine a kind of Dickensian society in which everyone knows their place. Poor people have poor children. Those poor children also have poor children. And all poor people die poor. Same thing for the rich. At first sight, such a society, or even one closely resembling it, is free of rights violations, and yet it clearly does not value human equality. And if you look more closely, it doesn’t really value human rights either. For instance, it’s likely that this society does not offer equal rights to education, for if it did some poor people would break ranks. Neither does such a society respect non-discrimination rules at work. Companies and government employers are probably very classist in their employment decisions, otherwise one would tend to see some poor again breaking ranks. Non-discrimination rules are human rights, and this is therefore another example of the way in which human rights are violated in a society lacking social mobility.

In short, a Dickensian society like the one described here has to be extremely classist and has to marshal extensive means in order to keep people in their place. It can only do so by way of massive violations of some human rights.

While a society like this is the exception in our modern world, there are many societies that resemble it. As a rule, we can say that societies with less than average social mobility will have more than average rights violations, all else being equal. Hence, social mobility is relevant to human rights in the sense that an effort to suppress social mobility almost always has an impact on the level of respect for human rights.

I guess this means that a society without social mobility can never be one where all human rights are perfectly respected. One can imagine a society in which there’s no discrimination, equal rights, no poverty and equal opportunity, but in which people are still socially mobile. A child of middle class parents can turn out to be a genius and enter the top earning class. Even in human rights utopia, one doesn’t want to enforce equal pay for everyone because incentives are good (in general). Vice versa, the children of genius parents can turn out to be average and end up in a lower income class. If this doesn’t happen, one can assume discrimination and favoritism.

The opposite isn’t the case: a society without social mobility can never be one where all human rights are perfectly respected, but a society with social mobility can be a brutal dictatorship:

Imagine a dictator who imprisons his subjects, but gives wealth and power to some chosen at random. There’ll be a lot of social mobility, but no justice or liberty. (source)

This shows that social mobility, although difficult to dismiss, is not enough because it does not require freedom and rights. It can even hide and justify deeper injustices. It’s also not enough because it removes attention away from the conditions of life in the lowest income strata. Instead of making it easier for people to enter higher income strata, it’s often better to improve their lives where they are: make their jobs better and more pleasant; give them a say in their companies; focus on the content of their jobs etc. Often, that is what they want rather than a higher station in life.

More on social mobility is here. Other posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Poverty (46): Poverty of Willpower and of Self-Control

Conservatives often argue that the absence of certain mental goods such as self-control and willpower are to blame for the absence of material goods: poverty of the mind and of the will leads to material poverty. Now it seems that things are actually the other way around. Psychological experiments have shown that

an individual’s capacity for exerting willpower [is] finite—that exerting willpower in one area makes us less able to exert it in other areas. … After you exert self-control in any sphere at all, like resisting dessert, you have less self-control at the next task. (source)

That’s a general rule, but also one which affects the poor disproportionately: their material poverty forces them to exercise self-control and willpower much more frequently and intensely. They therefore deplete their mental “stock” much more rapidly, and as a consequence lose the necessary mental powers in situations where they need them most. This in turn, makes their material poverty worse or at least more difficult to overcome.

The basic process have been shown over and over again in simple experiments. Here’s one:

[F]ood-deprived subjects sit at a table with two types of food on it: cookies and chocolates; and radishes. Some of the subjects were instructed to eat radishes and resist the sweets, and afterwards all were put to work on unsolvable geometric puzzles. Resisting the sweets, independent of mood, made participants give up more than twice as quickly on the geometric puzzles. (source)

This makes intuitive sense:

Purchasing decisions that the wealthy can base entirely on preference, like buying dinner, require rigorous tradeoff calculations for the poor. … [P]overty appears to [make] economic decision-making more consuming of cognitive control for poorer people than for richer people. … In one experiment, poor participants in India performed far less well on a self-control task after simply having to first decide whether to purchase body soap. …  [I]f you have enough money, deciding whether to buy the soap only requires considering whether you want it, not what you might have to give up to get it. (source)

This leads to some profound philosophical questions. Poverty seems to reduce free will, making it hard for the poor to use their own mental powers as means to escape their circumstances. However, if that is the case, we’ll be tempted to adopt some form of classism, blaming the poor rather than the economic and social structures they live in, the economic ups and downs that determine their job prospects, the discrimination some of them face, the politics and laws they endure etc. And then we’ll be right back where we started, with the conservative criticism of poverty discourse. The poor become a lesser form of humans, devoid of some of the essential human characteristics such as free will, self-control, intelligence etc.

However, the basic logic of the self-control argument remains persuasive, as long as one doesn’t focus too much on it at the expense of other causal explanations. The logic is also reminiscent of another causal theory, namely the bee sting theory of poverty. Both theories focus on the psychological causes of poverty:

A person with one bee sting is highly motivated to get it treated. But a person with multiple bee stings does not have much incentive to get one sting treated, because the others will still throb. The more of a painful or undesirable thing one has (i.e. the poorer one is) the less likely one is to do anything about any one problem. Poverty is less a matter of having few goods than having lots of problems.

If, for example, our car has several dents on it, and then we get one more, we’re far less likely to get that one fixed than if the car was pristine before. If we have a sink full of dishes, the prospect of washing a few of them is much more daunting than if there are only a few in the sink to begin with. …

[B]eing poor is defined by having to deal with a multitude of problems: One doesn’t have enough money to pay rent or car insurance or credit card bills or day care or sometimes even food. Even if one works hard enough to pay off half of those costs, some fairly imposing ones still remain, which creates a large disincentive to bestir oneself to work at all. (source)

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Poverty (43): The Welfare State

Yes, that’s right: the welfare state… According to many conservatives, the welfare state is self-defeating and actually makes people poorer. Welfare and social security (and perhaps even private charity) unwittingly work to thwart their own goal – helping the poor – in two different ways. There’s supposed to be a supply side and a demand side to the so-called “perverse effects” of anti-poverty policies.

Take the supply side first. The delivery of welfare by the government and – indirectly – by the taxpayers is economically inefficient. It burdens the primary suppliers of the necessary funds, namely the individual and corporate taxpayers. Because of this burden, companies and individuals lose the incentive to be productive. If they have to pay large amounts in taxes in order to fund the welfare state, they can’t or won’t create the wealth that is the basis for redistribution. In other words, they can’t or won’t create a rising tide that will lift all boats. Ultimately, a tax-based welfare state will eat itself because it burdens the wealth creators whose wealth it wants to redistribute.

I’ve argued against this rejection of the welfare state before, and I won’t repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that the risks to incentives are overstated, as well as the benefits of trickle down economics. (For instance, companies may decide to be more productive in order to compensate for the losses from taxation).

Let’s now turn to the demand side of the anti-welfare argument. Again, the reasoning is based on incentives that ultimately result in a self-defeating anti-poverty system, but this time it’s about the incentives of the recipients of welfare. The argument goes roughly like this. Take unemployment benefits for instance (one part of the welfare state). These benefits supposedly discourage people from working. And when people don’t work, they fail to gain experience and to nurture certain values – such as discipline – necessary in order to escape poverty. Hence, unemployment insurance makes the recipients worse off.

Or take another kind of benefit: financial support for children born out-of-wedlock. This kind of support also triggers the wrong incentives. It encourages teenagers to get pregnant and it discourages adults to marry. Teen-pregnancies and single parenthood both make it more difficult to escape poverty. Something similar happens with scholarships or affirmative action for poor students. These so-called anti-poverty policies actually incentivize students to enroll in education programs that are above their capabilities, forcing them to drop out of school at some point, and hence forcing them into poverty. And, finally, there’s the argument about welfare dependence: when people get money from the government they tend to settle in their role as receivers and fail to take their lives into their own hands. Again the wrong incentives.

This demand side of the anti-welfare argument suffers from two fatal shortcomings. First, the data don’t (always) support it. For example, it’s not true that generous unemployment insurance leads to higher unemployment. And secondly, it’s classist in the sense that it offers an essentialist depreciation of the poor as a class. The poor, according to the argument, suffer from a series of typical deficiencies:

  • shortsightedness (in the case of the person being tempted by child benefits and ignoring the long-term costs of teen pregnancy or single parenthood)
  • a lack of self-judgment (in the case of the student accepting a scholarship and enrolling in a program beyond her capabilities) and
  • a lack of self-control (in the case of the person settling in dependency).

This classism is not only generally incorrect and unfair, but it also obscures the many other causes of poverty. The poor aren’t always to blame for their own poverty, and the welfare state doesn’t force them to make themselves poor. Moreover, and even worse, this classism can be self-fulfilling.

Also, hasn’t the recent financial crisis shown that wealthy people, especially bankers, are equally short-sighted, self-deluded and lacking in self-control? And even if it’s true that those vices are more prominent among the poor (as is claimed here for example), wouldn’t that be a good argument for welfare rather than against it? If the poor can’t rationally take care of their own fate because they are self-deluded and unable to plan for the long term, shouldn’t the rest of us try to help them?

Capital Punishment (33): It’s Not What You Do, But What You Do to Whom

In the U.S., and probably also in other countries that still use the death penalty, not all murders are alike. Ostensibly, the death penalty is the supreme punishment for the supreme crime, i.e. murder. But some cases of the supreme crime are more likely to result in the supreme punishment than others. For example, it’s well-known that a black person who has committed murder is more likely to be executed than a white person, even if the details of their crimes are very much alike.

It seems that the moralistic justification of capital punishment – that the worst of crimes should be met with the severest of punishments – is just talk, applicable in some cases but not in others. This inconsistency is incompatible with moral talk, since morality is precisely about general and blind rules. The inconsistency becomes even more clear when we consider that it’s not just the race of the perpetrator that makes it more or less likely that horror is answered with horror. People who murder whites are much more likely to be executed than those who murder blacks.

I don’t want to sound conspiratory, but it does seem like the death penalty is an instrument in the continued subjugation of blacks and the protection of whites.

On top of the race issue, there’s also a class issue:

A defendant is much more likely to be sentenced to death if he or she kills a “high-status” victim, according to new research by Scott Phillips, associate professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Denver (DU).

According to his research published in Law and Society Review, (43-4:807-837), the probability of being sentenced to death is much greater if a defendant kills a white or Hispanic victim who is married with a clean criminal record and a college degree, as opposed to a black or Asian victim who is single with a prior criminal record and no college degree.

“The concept of arbitrariness suggests that the relevant legal facts of a capital case cannot fully explain the outcome: irrelevant social facts also shape the ultimate state sanction” Phillips says. “In the capital of capital punishment, death is more apt to be sought and imposed on behalf of high status victims. Some victims matter more than others.”

Phillips research is based on 504 death penalty cases that occurred in Harris County, Texas between 1992 and 1999. (source, source)

More on capital punishment is here.

The Causes of Poverty (40): A Culture of Poverty

It’s not uncommon to hear people claim that the poor shouldn’t blame “the system” for their poverty, but should look instead at their own values and behavior. Poor people, or at least some of them, show behavior that can be called a “culture of poverty“. They are the “undeserving poor“, the “stupid poor” who are poor because of their self-destructive lifestyle choices, their own stupid decisions, their self-chosen family situation, their involvement in crime, their drug use, their welfare dependency, their lack of effort in school, their lack of general discipline and their inability to plan for the long term.

Of course, we can all imagine some people who are “undeserving” in this sense, and some of us may know (of) some of them, but the adherents of the culture of poverty theory claim that such undeserving behavior is quite common among the poor and is the reason why the levels of poverty remain quite constant over time, even in some of the most wealthy and generous welfare states.

There are actually two versions of the culture of poverty theory, one more common than the other.

Innate moral deficiencies

Usually, the culture of poverty is believed to be a symptom of innate moral deficiencies among the poor. Or, euphemistically, the poor have a “unique value system”. It’s the depraved morality of the poor, and the self-destructive attitudes and behaviors that result from it, that keep them poor, period. All other possible explanations of poverty – discrimination, the membership theory of poverty, the bee sting theory, economic structures and processes, the business cycle etc. – go on the dump of politically correct academic claptrap.

This version of the culture of poverty theory is in essence a form of classism, akin to racism. Like a racist who claims that the depravation and inferiority of people of another race is entirely the fault of those people and should not be blamed on racism, adherents of this version of the culture of poverty theory claim that the poor are a separate group of people that make their own lives miserable, quite independently of external causes. The theory is also classist in the sense that it assumes one coherent culture among the poor, a culture that they simply “have” and that doesn’t contain major internal differences.

Acquired moral deficiencies

A more moderate but less common form of the theory maintains the moral opprobrium directed at poor people, but also sees some external reasons for their self-destructive values and behavior. The poor are still a separate group of people with a distinct culture, but this culture doesn’t result from some form of innate or genetically determined moral depravation that’s typical of the poor. The moral depravation that the adherents of this second version of the theory witness among the poor isn’t innate but is produced by generations of poverty. The poor classes and their offspring have responded to the ongoing burden of poverty by developing values and attitudes that perpetuate their poverty, and they socialize the next generations into these values and attitudes.

For example, decades of generational or hereditary poverty instill in people feelings of powerlessness, inferiority, victimhood and marginality, and these feelings in turn produce self-destructive values and behavior. They work as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecies. So, according to this second version of the theory, the self-destructive attitudes and behavior patterns that are the essence of the culture of poverty aren’t shaped by innate or genetic moral deficiencies. The observed moral deficiencies and the resulting self-destructive attitudes and behavior patterns are produced by internalization and socialization following decades of generational poverty.

The opposition to welfare inherent in the culture of poverty theory

Whatever the causes of self-destructive behavior – innate or genetic moral depravation on the one hand, or internalized self-destructive values on the other – the adherents of the culture of poverty theory claim that it’s only better behavior and values that can help people escape from poverty. The adherents of the “innate depravity” version of the theory will just have some more difficulties explaining how we can change the behavior and values of the poor.

And because it’s only better behavior that can help them, we shouldn’t give poor people money, unemployment benefits, healthcare insurance, child benefits etc. We don’t need a welfare state. Instead, the poor should be more diligent in their pursuit of a good education and a good job, they should lead healthier lives and have less children, especially out of wedlock etc. Some claim that money doesn’t matter for poverty (really!). The poor will do well even without money, as long as they change their value system. So, money doesn’t matter for poverty, like ice doesn’t matter for ice-skating, or something.

The fatalism inherent in the culture of poverty theory

According to the adherents of the culture of poverty theory, the poor aren’t just like all the rest of us minus the money. No, they are completely different, and just throwing money at them won’t change one iota. On the contrary, welfare benefits will just confirm them in their sense of victimhood and inferiority and will therefore perpetuate their destructive value system. However, closing the welfare tap and forcing them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps isn’t likely to work either, since they don’t have the discipline and the other values needed for that, and neither do they have the values necessary to get the education necessary to acquire a superior value system (were such an education provided to them).

Hence, even those adherents of the culture of poverty theory who don’t believe in innate moral deficiencies tend to conclude that poverty is permanent and that nothing can be done. Only those among the middle classes who have internalized the right values but for some reason or other become destitute (a widow for example, or a wounded soldier) will have the resources to recover. They might therefore also benefit from some form of welfare support. The generational poor, however, will remain poor even with tons of cash. Maybe the shock of near-starvation will help them, but also that is unlikely given their lack of moral resources and the difficulty of helping them to acquire those resources.

This is why the adherents of the culture of poverty theory claim that this theory explains the persistence of poverty much better than racism, discrimination, the inadequacies of the welfare state, the “creative destruction” of the business cycle etc.

A self-interested theory?

The culture of poverty theory, because it places the blame for poverty at the feet of the poor themselves, logically entails the claim that if those who are poor had acted differently they would not now be poor. And this entails yet another claim, namely that those who are not poor are so because of the way they acted. Hence, the wealthy deserve their riches. I can agree that they do to the extent that they work hard to earn their wealth. But wealth creation isn’t a solipsistic effort, it depends on cooperation. And it also depends on endowments such as talents, good and wealthy parents etc. and no one deserves any of those endowments. Many people who come into life with few endowments also work hard, and yet don’t achieve wealth.

I have the impression that the culture of poverty theory is just a tool for the wealthy to justify their own wealth and discredit the efforts to redistribute a part of that wealth in order to help the poor. I don’t mean that there are no individuals who are themselves the primary or even sole cause of their poverty, or that there aren’t any “cultural” explanations for poverty (“acting white” comes to mind). Neither do I underestimate the pernicious effects of a negative self-image or of welfare dependency. And I certainly don’t want to dispossess the wealthy simply because they can’t be said to deserve their wealth in any coherent sense of the word “deserve”. What I want to point out here is the tunnel vision of the culture of poverty theory, blocking out all other causes of poverty (mostly of a more structural nature), as well as the classism inherent in the theory, a classism that I believe is motivated by economic self-interest. And, finally, the fatalism of the theory is likely to be self-fulfilling.

More posts in this series are here.