Playing God with the Poor
At the new blog Bleeding Heart Libertarians (whose roster of contributors is impeccable, I must add), Matt Zwolinski has an outstanding couple of posts responding to arguments by Bryan Caplan that libertarians should be, and in fact are, unique by virtue of a willingness to distinguish between the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor. Caplan claims that “distinguishing the deserving from the undeserving poor is no harder than a thousand other moral distinctions we routinely make.”
Zwolinski’s core argument is that, while a distinction between the undeserving and the deserving is a valid distinction to make, it is not a distinction that our public policies ought to reflect. First, says Zwolinski, the costs of making the distinction may be high indeed, and in fact so high as to make it undesirable to make the distinction at all. Moreover, the moral significance of a false negative (ie, the denial of benefits to one who deserves them) greatly outweighs the moral significance of a false positive (ie, the granting of benefits to one who does not deserve them). Lastly, Zwolinski argues that while the use of taxation to create a strong social safety net requires the use of force despite the presumption against the use of force:
what it takes to overcome that presumption depends on your moral priors. If you believe very confidently that people have a strong moral claim to their current holdings, then it will take a correspondingly strong consideration to override the presumption against taking their income by force and redistributing it to others. If, on the other hand, you believe that people’s current holdings are significantly illegitimate (perhaps because they arose from past acts of injustice) then the burden will be lower. Similarly, if you believe that it is a moral obligation for the government to serve as the safety net of last resort for the deserving poor, you might indeed think that the mere possibility that someone might be deserving will be sufficient to overcome the justificatory burden. Finally, even if it’s clearly true that there’s a presumption against the use of force, it seems equally clear that the strength of this presumption depends on the severity and kind of force that’s being used.
I have made similar points to this last several times in the past (see, e.g., here). There is a parallel problem, it would seem, in distinguishing between those whose wealth is truly independent and those whose wealth has been made at the expense of others, even if legally.
But I really want to build on Zwolinski’s other points about the difficulties and costs of distinguishing between the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor, as well as the immense problem of false negatives.
First, the problem of the false negative here is tremendous. As a practical matter, the denial of benefits to someone who both needs them and deserves them, and would amount to a death sentence in many instances. Indeed, the average lifespan of a homeless person in the United States, despite the existence of at least a modicum of assistance for which they may be eligible, is only 47-48 years. In no small way, an attempt to distinguish between the “deserving” and the “undeserving” (really, the “productive” and the “unproductive”) amounts to an attempt to ensure that those deemed “undeserving” are to be sentenced to a worse fate than many, perhaps most, actual criminals. This is an offensive enough notion to begin with; that we would be willing to permit one whose poverty is out of their hands to suffer such a faith without anything even approaching the due process of criminal law is simply unacceptable.
And this says nothing of the problems incurred by the existence of “deserving” children of “undeserving parents.” There is simply no way to eliminate benefits to the latter without drastically injuring the former. By comparison, the problem of the false positive is fairly negligible and even cumulatively cannot possibly amount to more than perhaps a few hundred dollars per taxpayer in “waste.”
Nor is it as simple as Caplan suggests to distinguish between the “deserving” and the “undeserving,” at least not with any certainty. Caplan would be surprised to learn how readily employers will claim that an employee was fired for “tardiness, absenteeism, or insubordination,” whether to avoid an increase in their unemployment insurance premium or some other post-employment payment. He proposes that those who do not take a low-paid, unpleasant job are likewise undeserving, but ignores the difficulties of making this kind of determination in the first place, not to mention the opportunity cost issues here for the recipient nor the difficulties in discerning the types of low-paid unpleasant jobs that ought to make one qualified (would part-time suffice? Must the job be the highest-paid position available? How local must a job be? How do we know that the recipient would get the job if he applied? Etc.). Are we comfortable with the notion that one mistake by a human being which breaks no law should earn them a spot amongst the “undeserving” with few, if any, resources to start their career and their life anew?
What also of the person for whom neither luck nor fault is a “but-for” cause of their poverty, and how do we discern this? Such people are likely more common than Caplan would acknowledge, as we know that poverty itself is often a cycle in which lack of opportunity gives way to despair which in turn gives way to potentially self-destructive behavior.
Moreover, we should remember that our system in effect and deed, if not always word, already tries mightily to distinguish between the “deserving” and the “undeserving,” and the costs of this are immense. We restrict the type of foods that may be purchased with food stamps, resulting in regulatory capture of mammoth proportions. We disproportionately focus on poor neighborhoods in fighting the War on Drugs, turning them into war zones in the process. Likewise our unemployment agencies exist in no small part to make sure that no one deemed “undeserving” receives unemployment benefits; the administrative costs of doing so are far from insignificant. There is a growing movement to require mandatory drug testing for welfare recipients to make sure that “undeserving” drug users don’t receive welfare benefits; the costs of such testing on the “deserving” is hardly negligible.
In short, our attempts to distinguish between the “deserving” and the “undeserving” are destined to create ever-more burdens for the poor, yet we are to expect that these extra burdens will somehow incentivize them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps as if the only thing between them and being middle class is a lack of effort and desire. Instead, I suspect that the opposite is just as likely true – place extra burdens on the poor in order for them to just survive from day to day, and they will have less time or ability, and perhaps less dignity and self-respect, to take advantage of their all-too-rare opportunities to advance their lot in life.