The Causes of Poverty (34): Desert

Those who agree that the government should help the poor usually don’t make qualitative distinctions between different kinds of poor people. They only separate the mildly poor from the horribly poor and modify the assistance policies accordingly.

My personal views are similar to these, albeit that I want to promote private charity before and above government assistance. The recent debates about healthcare reform in the U.S. were in essence about one type of assistance to the “poor”, namely those not poor enough to be eligible to existing government programs yet not wealthy enough to be able to buy adequate private insurance. During these debates, Bryan Caplan – a libertarian – proposed to make a distinction between deserving poor and non-deserving poor:

All [the government] needs to do is provide a means-tested subsidy to make private health insurance more affordable for those who need it most. The subsidy should be based on income, wealth, chronic health status … on past and current behavior. People who engage in voluntary risky behaviors – smoking, drinking, over-eating, mountain-climbing, violence, etc. – should receive a smaller subsidy, or no subsidy at all. The same goes for people who failed to buy long-term insurance when they were healthy and employed, then ran into health or financial troubles. (source)

We can broaden this to poverty assistance generally. And we can also expand the argument to a moral one rather than one that is simply about the need, appropriateness or scope of government intervention in poverty reduction, since I believe government intervention in poverty reduction is simply a fallback option in the case of deficient private charity (see here for my argument). The government should step in when individuals and groups fail to honor their private duties towards fellow human beings. The proper question is then: do we, as individuals, have a moral duty to help the poor, directly and through the taxes we pay to the government? I think that’s the case, and if I’m right we should ask if this duty is limited to the deserving poor. In other words, can we ignore the predicament of those who are themselves the cause of this predicament through overly risky behavior, self-destructive behavior, or stupid and irrational behavior?

The affirmative answer to that question has some intuitive appeal. And it’s also coherent with a long tradition in moral philosophy that argues against paternalism as an attitude that protects people against their freedom to damn themselves. However, things aren’t quite as intuitive as this. A duty to assist only the deserving poor requires a clear and unambiguous distinction between desert and lack of desert. I don’t think it’s really possible to decide in all cases, or even most cases, that someone has or hasn’t been deserving. Take the case of a person engaging in systematic over-eating and thereby destroying his or her health and ending up in poverty. At first sight, that person deserves poverty. People are agents with a free will and have a choice to engage in self-destructive behavior. However, we know that education and culture influence eating habits, so the causes of this person’s poverty are far more diverse than simply his or her lifestyle decisions. Even if there is an element of voluntariness in this person’s decisions, at what level of voluntariness do we put the threshold and say that this person does indeed deserve his or her predicament, notwithstanding the effect of outside causes?

There is also a problem of information deficit. People can act in a bona fide way, believing that they don’t act in a self-destructive way, based on the information that they have gathered using the skills that they have been taught. How on earth can you go and judge whether people were sufficiently bona fide? You’d need the KGB to do that, and still…

In addition, there may be a chain of desert: if, through some miracle of understanding and close monitoring, you can determine that a person isn’t to blame for his or her own predicament, maybe you can decide to assist that person but reclaim the money from his or her parents because those parents were undeserving while educating the person. In that case, the least of your problems would be an infinite regress.

Also, given the fact that poverty reduction, because of the regular failure of private charity, isn’t simply an interpersonal matter and that therefore the government will have to step in at some point, do we really want the government to start separating the deserving from the undeserving? Look at the answer of another libertarian, Tyler Cowen:

First, I am worried about a governmental process which first judges the “deservingness” of each poor person before setting the proper subsidy. Do they videotape your life as you go along, or do they convene a Job-like trial when you submit receipts for reimbursement? (source)

So we have a fundamental tension between on the one hand the value of individual responsibility and the need to have people make their own choices and suffer the consequences (if no one has to suffer the consequences of choices it’s hard to call them real choices), and, on the other hand, the need to help the wretched of the earth, even those who may be (partly) responsible for their own wretchedness (I say “may be” because I don’t believe there’s a way to know, not even with a KGB).

The useful thing about this dilemma is that it makes clear that people are indeed in some cases the cause of their own poverty, at least in part. It’s very important to determine the real causes of poverty if you want to do something about it. Helping poor people after they have become poor is just part of the solution. It’s better to prevent poverty altogether, and this dilemma helps doing that because it forces people to see that behavior is a cause. Hence they should be able to adapt their behavior.