The Causes of Poverty (38): Behavior

Theories about the causes of poverty typically fall into two camps:

  1. either the poor are victims of circumstances that are irrational (trade restrictions, misguided government policies, etc.)
  2. or the irrationality is situated within the minds, lifestyles, behaviors and values of the poor whose lack of rational calculation and foresight condemns them to a life of poverty.

Theory 1 describes the poor as people who satisfy the commonly accepted economics paradigm of the rational economic actor, but who also face economic or political structures that make it difficult for them to reap the usual benefits of rational self-interested economic interaction in a mutually beneficial market. Theory 2 blames not the dysfunctions or imperfections of the market and of government, but the dysfunctions of the self-destructive individual.

Poverty alleviation in theory 1 means market corrections or improvements in government (redistribution, market liberalization, breaking poverty traps, institutional improvement, the struggle against corruption etc.). In theory 2, it means better education, family planning and perhaps even psychological and paternalistic guidance. Some will go to extremes such as sterilization or eugenics. In the immortal words of Oliver Wendell Holmes:

Carrie Buck is a feeble-minded white woman who was committed to the State Colony… She is the daughter of a feeble-minded mother… and the mother of an illegitimate feeble-minded child… An Act of Virginia, approved March 20, 1924, recites that the health of the patient and the welfare of society may be promoted in certain cases by the sterilization of mental defectives… We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Jacobson. v. Massachusetts, 197 U. S. 11. Three generations of imbeciles are enough. (source, source)

That’s not so popular anymore these days, fortunately, and invasive actions like these or like the aboriginal “Stolen Generations” are widely condemned. And yet, extremely paternalistic interventions still occur (take for example the current Australian aboriginal policy, aptly called “the intervention“).

Theory 1 seems to blame “society” for the fate of the poor, and this violates some of our philosophical intuitions about (limited) self-control and self-responsibility. Theory 2 seems very cold-hearted and even classist, and violates moral intuitions about the requirements and consequences of living together. That’s probably why the most common view is a mix of both theories (call it theory 3). Most of us believe that poverty has multiple causes and that these causes can be situated both in the economic-political structures and in individual psychology and behavior, in varying degrees depending on the specific cases.

However, there’s also a theory 4, described in this paper, and it’s one that avoids the (partially) paternalistic, classist, anti-activist or anti-individualist pitfalls of the previous three theories:

The behavioral patterns of the poor, we argue, may be neither perfectly calculating nor especially deviant. Rather, the poor may exhibit the same basic weaknesses and biases as do people from other walks of life, except that in poverty, with its narrow margins for error, the same behaviors often manifest themselves in more pronounced ways and can lead to worse outcomes. (source)

So the poor only give the impression of being deviant and self-destructive. They are, but not more or less than anyone else; it just shows more. For example, many poor people fail to open a bank account, notwithstanding the large benefits and the low costs of doing so. That failure is self-destructive because it increases the cost of payments and revenues, something the poor can afford least of all. However, this doesn’t prove that the poor are particularly self-destructive people. It only shows the effects of minor and universal human failures, such as embarrassment (when faced with a bank teller), short-termism, time preference etc., failures which happen to have graver consequences for the poor than for the rest of us because of their smaller error margins.

Plato, Democracy, and “Human Rights” (3): Violence

(please read part 1 and part 2 first)

The philosophers are the only ones who know the value and superiority of theoretical life. The rest will only appreciate their efforts once they are successful. This is an effort on the part of Plato to justify the use of force. Ordinary people will not strive autonomously or voluntarily towards a theoretical life because they do not understand the value of such a life. They will have to be forced (e.g. educated, moderated etc.). An emotional and materialist way of life must be prohibited. The leaders must not follow the desires of the people – as they do in a democracy – but on the contrary suppress these desires.

People have to be coerced. They must be taught the value of theoretical life. Their intellect must be stimulated, and their passions moderated. Censorship is therefore important. Art which stimulates the passions and desires must be prohibited. Art must be rational instead of emotional. Plato did not appreciate the art and mythology of his time, because they depicted the gods with the same shortcomings as man. Art must give the right example (Christianity and communism later followed in Plato’s footsteps).

However, Plato wanted to avoid physical force. He believes that truth is better than force and also better than persuasion based on opinions and argumentation. Self-evident truth forces the mind to accept it, but this force is quite different from physical force and it is more persuasive than opinions based on arguments.

The question is whether physical force can always be avoided. First, though, Plato wants to try the transmission of truth by way of education. He even proposed to take away the children from their families in order to insulate them from the bad habits of the ordinary people. A kind of tabula rasa. The purpose of education is to mold people according to the image or the model of the philosopher, to make a new man. If it is impossible to have a tabula rasa by means of forced adoption, then the old habits must first be taught away before new habits can be imprinted.

However, this is already a very violent form of education. Moreover, not everybody is adequate material for the fabrication of a philosopher. What happens with those people who turn out to be somewhat different from the plan? The best that can happen to them is hard discipline; the worst is elimination. They may be a bad example to the rest. Elimination either directly or through eugenics and arranged marriages.

The Platonic ideal is a society of people who lead a thinking life, who know the eternal truths and disregard the changing appearances, the desires of the body and the cycles of natural necessity. But it is not democratic to force one vision of the good life on all citizens. In a democracy, people must be free to choose their own good life. If we force them to lead a particular kind of life we enslave them, even if we think that it is for their own good and that later they will thank us for it.

And after we enslave them, we run into the problem of those people who are not able to live up to the model. Plato believes that the power of thinking can overcome the body and that this power can be developed and trained. Every human being has the power of thinking and the capacity to develop this power in such a way that it is correctly balanced with other powers such as emotions, ambitions etc.

But Plato admits that this training and discipline may sometimes be unsuccessful. The mind may not be able to gain a position of superiority with regard to other, more bodily faculties and desires. Some people will never be strong enough to fight the beast in them, not even with extreme discipline in a dictatorial state led by philosophers with an iron hand. The one who, in the eyes of Plato, was the best master of the beast in himself and hence the example to us all, was Socrates. By refusing to escape after having been condemned to death, he showed the undisciplined democrats how to live beyond desire, the ultimate desire being the wish to live.

Parts 1, 2 and 4