Charity and Stigma


Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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279 Responses

  1. Avatar greginak says:

    How many able bodied charity reciepents do you think there are? Is unemployment ins. charity? Is SCHIP or Medicaid/Care charity?

    Most of people who get some sort of public aid are children, elderly or disabled.Report

    • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

      Unemployment insurance isn’t charity if you can’t find work. If you can, and you choose not to work, then sure, it’s charity -> even though you paid into the system, you’re taking out of it outside the bounds of the design of the system.

      Medicare can be charity; as I pointed out on another thread, I’ve read (feel free to contest this) that the average retiree is going to take out of Medicare 3 to 5 times what they put in. It can also *not* be.

      As to how many able bodied charity recipients there are… I’m personally not convinced that “able-bodied” is the important factor here. But that’s just me. If you’re collecting welfare and you’re looking for work, you’re not a charity case. If you’re collecting disability and you’re still doing something productive with your time (volunteerism, whathaveyou), you’re not a charity case. If you’re watching daytime soaps all day and it’s because your wife is working full time and you don’t want to work, you’re a charity case (albeit of a different sort).

      I’m not so sure the shame thing is important. If someone really doesn’t want to work, me shaming them isn’t going to make them want to work -> and if they’re in the workforce because of shame, they’re going to be a crappy co-worker. I’ve had enough of those in my lifetime, don’t need any more, thanks.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi says:

        If they’re in the workforce because of lust, they’re likely to be a good, if ambitious coworker.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi says:

        and, come to think about it, shame — societal disapproval, is likely to motivate many people. I’m certain we’ve at least a couple of people around here asking “WHY can’t I get dates??” with an Implied “I’ll go fix that!”Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        I don’t think there are all that many able bodied charity recipients. Its more a conservitive shibolith. The safety net serves all of us to one degree or another and at one time or another. We all benefit and we all pay in. Some get more, some get less based a lot on luck. I agree shame won’t force someone into the workforce. It will only force them to try to make a good show it before failing.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi says:

        One other thing: most people can find work in a mcD’s, if they live in a major city. that’s not enough to keep them living there, of course.
        Workforce Insurance is there for a variety of reasons, but one of the main ones is that it allows someone to find a decent job, rather than the first available.Report

        • Avatar bookdragon says:

          Good point. My husband was out of work for awhile after his company went down the tubes in ’08. He got a couple offers for new jobs within 3 months of being laid off, but since taking one of the offers would mean moving across the country and thereby forcing me to quit my job (which paid more), he turned them down.

          I don’t think taking unemployment longer in order to find a decent job in the area should inspire shame. Although, quite frankly, not being employed did make him feel guilty even though it was through no fault of his own.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

        I know two people who have openly admitted committing unemployment fraud to me, both of whom were eminently employable. Warren Meyer over at Coyote Blog says that unemployment fraud is a big problem for his business.Report

        • FWIW, he also makes clear that unemployment fraud is a problem that is unique to California.Report

          • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

            We have a lot of the rest of the country’s problem children here, right?


          • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

            Among the nine states he operates in, anyway. I’ve heard similar stories in Washington state, including intimidation of employers for trying to report clear abuse. I have recently heard some radio ads asking people to report abuse, so they may be cracking down on it.Report

        • Avatar ktward says:

          Mr. Berg,

          You are, perhaps unintentionally, the perfect example of the painfully constrained extent of conservative thought today: “I know a couple of guys who f**ked the system. So the system is obviously broken.”

          Forget the data that might substantiate any counterpoint I might make. I’ll simply ask you one question: are you more concerned about the few folks who find a way to abuse the safety-net, or are you more concerned about the many folks who *need* the safety-net?

          Or maybe you don’t care about the folks who not only need the safety net, but because of it are able to find a way to thrive without it. If that’s the case, just say so: “F**k everyone who needs any kind of gov’t assistance.” Then we’ll all know where you stand.Report

          • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

            I’m not really a big people person, so that’s two out of a fairly small sample. I also know someone with an advanced degree who works off the books and doesn’t declare the income, and a sixty-year-old who’s been a deadbeat his whole life because his parents were always there to bail him out.

            That said, the biggest problem with welfare isn’t the outright fraud, it’s the moral hazard. It’s the people who get themselves into bad situations—chiefly having children they can’t afford to take care of—knowing that the government will be there to pick up the slack. These people legitimately need help, but it’s their fault that they’re in a situation where they legitimately need help.

            And this perpetuates the cycle of poverty. Poor parents have poor children, not because they lack material resources, but because they have characteristics that lead to poverty, and pass those on to their children. The easier we make it for the poor to have more children, the higher the poverty rate in the next generation.Report

  2. Avatar damon says:

    I agree. I feel shame when I accept a hand out. Hell, I felt uncomfortable as an adult having to move back into my father’s house after losing a job (due to my boss’s financial incompetence). Everyone should. But I take issue with this:

    “The stigma is also misplaced whenever it targets the recipients of public welfare who have paid into the public welfare system, often for much of their lives, and who did so on the promise that they were in a fashion saving their own money, albeit in a roundabout, inefficient, low-return, decidedly non-voluntary way. That is, it targets them merely for trying to get out of the system something like what they of necessity put in. People who try to get out of a savings account something like what they put in are not being moochers. They’re being thrifty.”

    You’re talking about Social Security? It’s one thing to get “what you paid into SS”. It’s another to get more. I’m sorry, but SS isn’t a charity, it’s an entitlement program and the vast majority of retires get much more from the program than they ever put in. That’s BS. I’d be ok with them getting more out if the money was actually invested and they were getting investment proceeds out, but they aren’t, they are getting transfer payments from me and other in the workforce. That’s why, in effect, it’s a ponzi scheme. Always has been.Report

    • Avatar Kimmi says:

      Ponzi Scheme? That’s reagan’s 401ks. need I say more?Report

      • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

        I invite everyone who believes this to put their money under a mattress instead.Report

        • Avatar Kimmi says:

          Once burnt, twice shy.
          Yup, under a mattress it goes. In this case, hard assets called a house.
          That way, all those rich assholes fleeing to pittsburgh can inflate my money.

          (note: if your 401k gives 150% matching funds, you’re probably not going to lose money).

          If I had put money into my 401k at my last job, I’d have never been able to afford the house. I give thanks to Dr. Doom!Report

          • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

            Kimmi, remember when you made fun of me for shooting for 4% on my retirement account?

            Change you mind? 🙂Report

            • Avatar Kimmi says:

              ;-P Sometimes the biggest risk is to go for the safest investment.
              I’ll wager I get more than 4% back out of the house (particularly vis rent).
              Inflation hedge is where I’m investing, at least at the moment.Report

        • Avatar Kimmi says:

          and this is how we know you’ll never be rich.
          The proper answer is SHORT THE MARKET.Report

    • Avatar gregiank says:

      oh cripes..another person who doesn’t know what a ponzi scheme is.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi says:

        yeah, the thing is? my use of it bears at least some resemblance to the actual term.
        1) the people in before the boomers got rich. And, if they were smart, ran away.
        2) The boomers themselves made themselves rich, and as they pull out, are going to bankrupt the rest of us. (at least the ones invested in stocks. the ones invested in bonds are beyond hope as of this point).Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

      Also, Medicare is straight-up welfare. You have to pay a bit in taxes to qualify, but the bar is very low (paying a 2.9% tax on at least $4500/year for ten years, or something like that), and once you meet the threshold, you’re legally entitled to exactly the same benefits as someone who paid in hundreds of times more than you.Report

  3. Avatar Kimmi says:

    Is community organizing only praiseworthy if it’s done through, or aimed at the state?
    HELL NO!
    the State is a lever, like any other. Private corps are just as much levers, and can sometimes be bigger, dependin’ on the circumstances.

    Right now, right here, there’s a movement to create a black upper-middle-class neighborhood out of some decent housing stock that’s fallen upon hard times. (those folks about to cry racist had better review some of those reasons you gave me for why folks don’t wanna live in cities, am I clear?).
    Does it take the government to do it? Nah, it takes the government not poking its nose in.Report

  4. Avatar Liberty60 says:

    I agree that a certain amount of shame should be directed at those who willingly shirk their responsibility to work.

    On the moral obligations of the rich- shouldn’t they be the targets of shame if they willingly shirk it as well?Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

      Did you read to the end? The part about Charles Murray? That’s sort of what I take him to be saying.

      I know it’s easier to assume that he means “I hate poor people,” but I honestly read nearly all of his opprobrium in Coming Apart as being directed at the country’s elites.Report

      • Avatar Liberty60 says:

        I did read that, and got a vauge sense of it from your writing.

        But I am more explicit; I believe there is a moral obligation to be self sufficient, but a parallel obligation to provide for those in need.

        Shame should be directed at those who shirk either one. This creates a rather communitarian view of the individual, where society has a partial claim on us all.Report

    • Avatar trizzlor says:

      If you’re talking about a trust-fund kid blowing his money on cocaine, well, that’s private charity (from the parents) and it fits neatly into Jason’s framework. If you’re talking about someone who saved up enough money for early retirement and now plays golf all day, then they’ve earned it and get to do as they please.Report

  5. Avatar Mary G says:

    What is the point of this post? Can you give me some specific examples of able-bodied people taking either private charity or government benefits without shame? Besides Mitt Romney and the other beneficiaries of the carried interest exemption?Report

    • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

      Read it charitably. He’s going back and forth with Russell and they’re chewing on something that’s difficult.Report

    • Avatar Kimmi says:

      He’s extending a branch, drawing a line, and making sure everyone’s on one side of it. It’s an attempt to frame the debate by “together” instead of “we disagree”.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi says:

        That abc news isn’t documenting that. maybe CATO’s documenting that, but ABC News is either being alarmist, or kinda dumb.
        What you’re seeing there is signs of a reasonably functional system.
        Cheer up: costco and trader joe’s have started accepting foodstamps.Report

      • Avatar Liberty60 says:

        Millions? Seriously?

        At the Pentagon, Everett Dirckson’s aphorism that “a million, here, a million there, and pretty soon you are talking about real money” is engraved on a bronze plaque and given pride of place.

        Its the subject of much hilarity, so I hear.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

      My favorite definition of philosophy is that it is a sustained effort to think clearly. That effort sometimes ends up framing our intuitive reactions to the world in very different language than we are used to employing. That’s what I’m trying here.

      Can I give you examples of people taking handouts inappropriately? I like Mike Schilling’s, below, of the millionaires who get huge taxpayer-funded discounts on their playgrounds, the pro sports stadiums. Nearly the ideal type of the improper handout.

      Except, whenever I try to point it out, I get told how great team sports are for a city’s image or whatnot. Go team!Report

      • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

        Actually, I botched the quote. It’s this:

        “Philosophy is the peculiarly stubborn attempt to think clearly,” from William James, although I first read it in Brand Blanshard’s On Philosophical Style, and I don’t know where it first appeared in James.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi says:

        *snort* that only works for pittsburgh.
        Giants play in pittsburgh — suddenly getting tons of calls asking,
        “was that really pittsburgh???”
        … someone even called it “The Emerald City”

        seriously, if your city needs an image upgrade, AND
        it looks good on camera (Ballpark best in country),
        then maybe, just maybe, it’s worth a bit of money.

        A BIT. I’m no fan of taxpayer provided sporting places.Report

      • Avatar MikeSchilling says:

        California government rightly gets a lot of criticism, but this is one thing we get mostly right. The Giants and Dodgers both play in privately funded stadiums. The 49ers, Raiders, A’s, Angels, Warriors, and Kings all play in older stadiums, because we won’t pay for new ones, and LA has no football at all for the same reason.Report

        • Avatar James Hanley says:

          It boggles my mind that no private investor is willing to fund a stadium for a professional football team in L.A., of all places, the second largest metro area (by population) in the whole frickin’ country.

          Can anyone explain this to me?

          (But, by the way, kudos to L.A. for standing firm.)Report

          • Avatar Liberty60 says:

            They may be waiting for a futbol stadium instead.

          • Avatar MikeSchilling says:

            Lots of steps, all difficult:

            1. Buy an existing franchise.
            A. They don’t come up for sale that often.
            B. Any sale needs to be approved by the other owners.
            C. The presumption is always in favor of local ownership.
            2. Disentangle it from any current obligations (e.g. the stadium lease.)
            A. This always means a lawsuit with the city, who paid for the stadium and doesn’t want it sitting empty.
            3. Find a place to play in LA while the stadium is being built, because you don’t want to be in Cincinnati (or wherever) for two years as the guy who is about to take the team away.
            And since most revenues are pooled, the only way to make significantly more money after moving the team, is to build a monster stadium with expensive luxury boxes, and kepp them filled.Report

        • Avatar Chris says:

          One thing is inaccurate about this: you say the Warriors “play” in an older stadium, when what you meant to say was that the Warriors suck in an older stadium.Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

      In addition to the examples I gave upthread, it seems to me that the left has been pretty explicit about this in pushing for single-payer health care and/or a universal basic income.

      See, for example, Erik here:

      Well I think the idea is to have the sort of redistribution and safety net needed to allow people to work a lot less. So you could freelance or work part time and not be destitute.

      Yglesias here:

      Some people who might otherwise prefer to work part-time are currently working full-time in order to get health insurance benefits. Some people who might otherwise prefer to retire are currently working full-time in order to get health insurance benefits. A universal health care insurance will change that. Which is to say that a universal health insurance system will make their lives better and make it easier for them to do what they want.

      Here’s Kevin Drum saying that the Obamacare insurance subsidy will allow him to retire five years early.

      There you have it: Three leftists (and not even fringe leftists) saying that it’s okay to take government subsidies not to enable you to make ends meet when you can’t despite your best efforts, but just because you don’t feel like working at a full-time job.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi says:

        Do you find this objectionable?
        After all, we mandate a minimum distance between buildings, so that we have a minimal structural integrity of children.Report

  6. Avatar NewDealer says:


    1. Is it morally better for an able-bodied person to be on public or private welfare for four years if it means graduating from college/university in a reasonable amount of time or is it better for them to take 8 years and not be on charity?

    I mean better in all senses: morally, ethically, economically, psychologically, for society.

    My inclination is that it is better to swallow pride and take the charity and graduate in four years and enter the workforce at a better level with a higher GPA. There is good in devoting time to study, I don’t see why it is better for someone to work the graveyard shift as a security guard and take a longer time to graduate from university. There is also good in a society that recognizes the importance of study and academics as being something separate and important for all, not just a luxury for the middle class and above or those of iron determination.

    2. How much does able body rest on our visible perception?

    Someone might look healthy but be suffering from a chronic disease or a hidden terminal one like an inoperable malignant tumor. I have a friend whose epilepsy prevents him from working but he looks perfectly healthy from outward appearances. Not too mention mental illness can be hard to detect through casual observation.

    Simply put I think a lot of people are prone to making incorrect observations based on their eyes. Just because someone looks able to work does not mean that they are.Report

    • Avatar Kimmi says:

      a good deal of college students lack motivation, at elast if they aren’t working outside — particularly if they never have worked outside.
      I’d say get everyone to take a year off and work as a candystriper (changing bedpans), and then toss ’em at college. work wonders, I tell you!Report

    • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

      (1) <- this depends upon a number of complicated additional factors that result in a "Reply hazy, ask again later. Like, when you have more data." I don't know that you can generalize an answer for this one. For some people, four-and-out is better. For some, eight-and-greater-responsibility is better. (2) <- yes.Report

    • My inclination is that it is better to swallow pride and take the charity and graduate in four years and enter the workforce at a better level with a higher GPA. There is good in devoting time to study, I don’t see why it is better for someone to work the graveyard shift as a security guard and take a longer time to graduate from university. There is also good in a society that recognizes the importance of study and academics as being something separate and important for all, not just a luxury for the middle class and above or those of iron determination.

      I get where you’re going here and largely agree. I do think, however, it can be prudent for someone to work during school and thereby demonstrate to future employers that they know how to work a job, especially if their major is one that by itself doesn’t inspire a lot of “come on in, we’ll hire you right away.”

      I majored in History and in French as an undergrad, I worked most of those years in fast food, and I think that was one reason I was able to get a job as a….bank teller after I graduated. It wasn’t my dream job–and as far as customer service jobs go, it’s pretty hard, low pay and no benefits, at least where I worked–but it served my needs then.

      The alternative track, of course, is along the lines of what you suggest. Take out loans and spend time studying, but also do internships, establish networks, and otherwise qualify yourself for the type of job that can offer benefits and something like a living wage. I probably should’ve done that, but I can tell you (and you’ll have to take my word for it), that if I hadn’t worked in college, I would’ve probably only studied and not done any of the proto-job seeking. That’s just me, of course.Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

      Is it morally better for an able-bodied person to be on public or private welfare for four years if it means graduating from college/university in a reasonable amount of time or is it better for them to take 8 years and not be on charity?

      Are banks no longer issuing loans for this sort of thing?Report

  7. Avatar Chris says:

    Where does the moral obligation to work come from?Report

    • Avatar Kimmi says:

      I think we have a moral obligation to create, or if not create, to help others who are less fortunate than ourselves.
      Tikkun Olam.

      This is not a moral obligation to clean toilets. If 50% of our workforce were artists, I’d be happier.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

      The moral obligation to work comes from a bare fact of nature, plus the categorical imperative.

      The bare fact of nature: Manna doesn’t fall from heaven.

      The categorical imperative: Act so that you could will the maxim behind your action to be accepted as a universal law.

      I can’t formulate “Live purely off the efforts of others” as a categorical rule. If everyone were to do it, we all would starve.

      I can, however, formulate a much better rule, even if it is a bit less elegant: “Live off your efforts in what you create and in what you exchange to mutual benefit, whenever this is possible; when it is impossible in yourself, you may ask for help; and when you have a surplus, you should help others.”

      That’s messy, I know. It doesn’t lend itself to us-v-them politics. It even requires the tricky concept of exchange to mutual benefit, which makes it a nonstarter for most. But it’s I think the best I can do to give a universal maxim for how to be decent in an economy of specialization and gains from trade.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        OK, I can live with that. I’m not sure the “Manna doesn’t fall from heaven” really applies to modern work, in which the Manna and the work are separated, but the Kantian rule gets at something.

        Now, how do we get from there to “If you can’t work to produce something for yourself, you must work to produce something for someone else?” In other words, there’s some middle ground between modern labor and living “purely off the efforts of others.” That middle ground is, admittedly, severely restricted by society and culture, but how does all of that affect our moral imperative?Report

        • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

          This is where the meat is.Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

          how do we get from there to “If you can’t work to produce something for yourself, you must work to produce something for someone else?

          I’d say the question is malformed, but just slightly.

          As you know, I’m pretty into Austrian economic theory. It’s axiomatic over there (and I think in Marxism too, come to think of it) that work, at the very least under current conditions, is in itself unpleasant. One doesn’t do work for its own sake; if one did, that would not be work, but either play or else purely unalienated labor.

          Either of those would be great if we could do them all the time, but we can’t, not right now anyway. There is a necessity (for someone) to work — insert categorical imperative reasoning here once again — and so we work.

          But how is the product divided up? Well, like all other inputs in our economic system, labor has a price. The price exists so we know where to put different kinds of labor, how to substitute labor and capital, how to plan so that our labor in the future is more productive, and the like. I could walk through some examples, but the big point here is that without a price to different kinds of labor, we end up laboring, and thus suffering, needlessly, at least when compared to more efficient allocations.

          In other words, we put a price on labor with the aim of minimizing laborers’ suffering. (Obligatory joke: Think labor’s cheap now? Wait until it’s free!)Report

          • Avatar Chris says:

            This is a good answer, just not to the question I asked, which is, I suppose, why you said it was malformed. It is undoubtedly true, of course, that work under current conditions is unpleasant — to run with something I was talking about here yesterday, it is repressive, even, and if we’re going to reference Marx, we might as well note that it is alienating as well. Putting a price on labor at least quantifies something about that (though it’s not strictly correlated with the repressiveness or the degree of alienation), and I suppose makes the work more efficient. If we have to be repressed and alienated, it might as well be in the service of makin’ more and better stuff, or at least makin’ more money, right?

            But that just gets me back to my question: is the answer to build a better (and ultimately more repressive and definitely more alienating) system of this sort of work, or does the first moral imperative really suggest that we should try for something else? Something less repressive, even if less efficient in terms of production? I mean, it seems to me that this comes down to either living in a repressive society (and all that entails, which inevitably means a repressive state), or living in society that promotes freedom, but that’s way down the line in the argument I’m slowly trying to lay out. Put differently, does the moral obligation to work, as you’ve laid it out in answer to my first question, not conflict with any sort of moral obligation to promote human freedom or even human flourishing more broadly, as soon as we put apply that obligation within a system in which the vast majority of the available work is repressive.

            So before I go on, and so I might be able to skip some steps, have you read Eros and Civilization?Report

            • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:


              You two keep going.Report

            • Avatar Ryan Noonan says:

              This conversation is excellent. My first reaction to Jason’s post was: “Whaaaaat? Everyone thinks this already!”

              My second reaction was: “Wait, why does everyone have to work? Some jobs really suck!” (One of Jason’s great skills being his ability to elicit disagreements from me before I even realize I have them.)

              I’d say I’m among the most left-wing members of the League on this question, in that I’m inclined to support high taxes and a robust welfare state precisely so that people have the space to live the kinds of lives they want to live, even if that doesn’t really include “work”.

              So yeah, I’m with Pat. Keep going.Report

            • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

              Put differently, does the moral obligation to work, as you’ve laid it out in answer to my first question, not conflict with any sort of moral obligation to promote human freedom or even human flourishing more broadly, as soon as we put apply that obligation within a system in which the vast majority of the available work is repressive.

              This is where Marx and the Austrians divide. I side with the latter, I think, when I say that the moral obligation to work is satisfied for you when you have resources enough that you don’t need to work anymore and don’t have a reasonable prospect of burdening anyone else. It’s something you have to decide on your own.

              The whole trick of work and leisure is to find an unease-minimizing mix of them both, in light of diminishing marginal returns. (Yes we could usually be more flexible here, with net utility gains I think.) If, after you aren’t a burden to anyone else, you find that you want to work for the sheer enjoyment of it, that’s also allowed. Wonderful, even.

              How would I punish a society in which large numbers of people refused to work? They wouldn’t need punishment. They’d already have it.

              Is a whole lot of work un-fun? Yes. Is a whole lot of it vastly more constraining than my job, at which I can take frequent breaks, can and do happily work extra at home, and — very honestly — can spend all day reading interesting books and still call it “work”? Yes. Almost all of the work in the world is vastly more constraining. I’m well aware of it.

              (Is that altogether fair? No. I lucked out. Won the goddamn lottery. Questions of luck may be too far from what you’re getting at, so I’ll just set them aside if you don’t mind.)

              Is there a need to repress people into doing work? No, not apart from the unavoidable fact that manna doesn’t fall from heaven, and work does still need to be done to avoid dearth and suffering. I can’t repeal that one no matter how much I’d like to, and honestly, I would like to. That’s the whole reason we work, to remove that enormous unease at least for a time.

              Added: If I have read Eros and Civilization, it was so long ago that I’m afraid I don’t remember it. Added a couple of other bits on re-read too.Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                A few things before I get into what I want to say in response to this (which, along with everything else you’ve said here, is good). First, when I talk about repression I’m speaking in terms of Freudian repression, which is somewhat different from exploitation and alienation from Marx. But work in our system (and in the end, work in any materialist system) is also exploitative and alienating even on top of its repressiveness. I just wanted to make it clear that, while I might be bumping into Marx, I’m not trying to make a strictly or even primarily Marxist point. I’m not a Marxist, even if I admire and have been influenced by Marx. I don’t think you, Jason, think I was, but we’re in some pretty tall weeds here, and as I said, I have a nasty cold, so I want to make sure I’m being clear.

                OK, starting again at our moral imperative, the imperative to work, and recognizing that in our system, much if not most (if not the vast majority) of work in our system is not only repressive, but also alienating and exploitative (that is, labor is exploited), demeaning, mind-numbing, and so on, the question for me becomes this: would we not be better off, and would our system not better promote freedom (not just material, but also mental) and dignity, if work were a choice of whether to work or not?

                Bringing this thing around full circle, you talked about the (in)dignity of being dependent on an individual or individuals through charity, or on the government. We live in a system where the vast majority of people have to work. Able-bodied people who aren’t single parents, or passably disabled, can’t really live at any acceptable standard without work, at least not long term. Sure, they can, if they qualify, live off unemployment insurance for short time (up to 99 weeks, depending on where they live and what the rate has been there for the last few months), particularly if they have savings or qualify for other forms of aid (food stamps, section 8 housing, or whatever). But in order to have food, shelter, utilities, access to health care, and other necessities long term, the vast majority of us will have to work. This makes us dependent on others as much as the charity or welfare would, and in a market like the one we’re in now, this is doubly the case, because separating from employment is a very tricky proposition. This means that we have no choice but to submit to repressive, exploitative, alienating, and often demeaning and mind-numbing work. Is there not indignity in that? Perhaps less than being dependent on “unearned” charity or welfare (though I’m not willing to concede that is the case), but is it not still indignity?

                So again, wouldn’t it be better, isn’t it in fact a moral imperative of similar stature to that of work, given our current system and its flaws, to make work a choice? And in order to make it a choice, don’t we have to alter the system in such a way that, as I believe Ryan was saying, we can in fact live a decent life without working? This would of course require that those of us who do choose to work contribute some of the product of our labor to the “welfare system” that provides a basic living standard to those who choose not to do so. However, this isn’t just, as some will undoubtedly see it, giving my hard earned pay to the state so that others can be moochers, but giving my hard earned pay so that I have a choice, and everyone else does as well.

                The direction I really want to take is that if work, which is to say, some degree of self-support and even contribution to society (or the community, or whatever) is a moral imperative in the abstract, a point on which we both agree, then to make it consistent with other broad moral constraints, concerning dignity and freedom (not just material freedom, but mental freedom as well), then I think a radical reworking of our system is required so that work and dignity, work and freedom, are compatible, even mutually reinforcing and sustaining, but within our current system, I’m content to start with work as a choice, which automatically infuses it with some dignity and freedom.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

                You and I both are deeply informed by Marx, as I think any educated and reflective person now has to be. That doesn’t make either of us Marxists, of course. I think a great deal of what Marx wrote was false, evil, and did enormous harm. But I also think his critiques of the capitalism he saw around him were in many ways just, even if his remedy was not. He also produced all sorts of useful mental tools that anyone can pick up and deploy later on. Provided they have the fortitude to do so.

                You ask: Wouldn’t it be better if work were a choice? Of course it would be better. Marx saw this very clearly.

                But is our current economic output sufficient that we could make it so today? That is, given something like our current technological capabilities and known resources, could we re-arrange our institutions such that all work was non-alienated labor?

                I’m afraid I don’t think that’s possible. We are working toward that, and it should be the goal. I don’t believe that we can do it right now.Report

        • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

          Now, how do we get from there to “If you can’t work to produce something for yourself, you must work to produce something for someone else?” In other words, there’s some middle ground between modern labor and living “purely off the efforts of others.” That middle ground is, admittedly, severely restricted by society and culture, but how does all of that affect our moral imperative?

          The moral imperative isn’t that you must provide for yourself, it’s that you must not make yourself a burden on others. Which means that when you need or want something, you should either make it yourself or convince someone else to give it to you voluntarily through mutually beneficial exchange.

          I don’t actually believe in moral imperatives, so that’s shorthand. What I really mean is that we’re all better off if people do productive work instead of slacking off and expecting others to provide for them. That being the case, it’s in our interest to make working more attractive than loafing, so we honor the former and shame the latter.Report

          • Avatar James Hanley says:

            The moral imperative isn’t that you must provide for yourself, it’s that you must not make yourself a burden on others.

            Yes. If we must have moral imperatives, that’s the better way to put it.Report

          • Avatar Stillwater says:

            BB: The moral imperative isn’t that you must provide for yourself, it’s that you must not make yourself a burden on others.

            I’m with you about imperatives. But I think the imperative of acting in such a way as to not burden others requires that other people already feel a moral obligation to help you, to in effect take the burden. I mean, think about it this way: I cannot compel you to take up my burdens, but I can take advantage of their already existing inclination to do so.Report

      • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

        Manna does fall from heaven. Anyone who doesn’t grab all they can is stupid. That’s the new FYIGMReport

      • Avatar Dan Miller says:

        Yeah, if there’s one feature of modern society it’s relentless hostility towards the concept of exchange to mutual benefit.Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

          If there’s one feature of the modern intelligentsia, you’ve just named it. Modern society, less so. But I try to know my audience.Report

          • Avatar Ryan Noonan says:

            Isn’t the modern intelligentsia almost uniformly pro-free trade? I’m not sure how they could be if they don’t basically support the concept of “exchange to mutual benefit”. I guess cognitive dissonance is a possibility, but the accusation you make here simply doesn’t square with any interactions I have with people outside of the comments of blogs.Report

            • Avatar Chris says:

              I long for a world in which capitalism is no longer a heterodox view in economics departments, but the dominant one, and the Marxians, socialists, and feminists who dominate our economic departments, from the University of Chicago to George Mason, find themselves on the fringe of their discipline!Report

        • Avatar James Hanley says:

          I don’t think there’s hostility to the idea of exchange to mutual benefit, but I do think a lot of liberals–at least League ones–are surprisingly hostile to the claim that market exchanges are normally mutually beneficial. I’ve been told in no uncertain terms by a particular person here at the League that every business person I engage with is trying to cheat me. (Ironically, that person is himself a businessman who gives every indication that he’s scrupulously honest and always gives value for value.) There are people–although certainly nothing like all liberals–who seem persuaded that every, or nearly every, market exchange is a swindle of one sort or another.Report

          • Avatar greginak says:

            Well i went to Best Buy to test out some tech stuff for a birthday present this weekend. So yes i believe all businesses are trying to swindle me. Okay enought snark. There is a lot of suspicion towards business on the leftward side. Its the mirror image of irrational hatred of gov on the rightward side. Where it is correct is to note that business is there to make money. Thats it. Not to be a good corporate citizen , allthough that is nice if they care about that. Rightward folks go with the “I got lousy service at the DMV so therefor gov is bad” kind of arguments. Leftward folks have plenty of simalar experiances with being screwed over by business people.Report

            • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

              Government is a necessary evil. Commerce is a necessary good.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:


              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                And probably right. Trade predates government.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                I’m not sure.

                I think they’re both necessary evils. But I’m still working on that one.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                Why would voluntary exchange for mutual utility gains be an “evil” in any way at all?Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                It seems to me that trade can be viewed as having both good and bad parts. Same with government. The idea that government is evil seems to a prevalent view around these parts. Tom expressed it just upthread; Jason K expressed that view yesterday in response to a question I asked him.

                That seems like a naive view of government to me. Government can act in evil ways, so can individuals, so can collections of individuals who are individually acting morally neutrally.

                But the idea that government = evil (rather than government can sometimes act evilly) seems empirically false. I wonder where the idea comes from, since it strikes me as irrational and very much an emotionally driven belief.Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                James, I don’t think it makes much sense to talk about good and evil here, but for the sake of argument, would it not be better, at least, to be self-dependent? Or put differently, if we are dependent on others (through trade) for something, isn’t that worse than not being dependent on others (through trade)? And if we’re not dependent on others, why is trade a necessity?Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                Why would voluntary exchange for mutual utility gains be an “evil” in any way at all?

                That’s a normative view of economic exchange, and not a definition of “commerce” or “trade”, which is what patrick was referring to.Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                Stillwater’s getting at what I’m getting at. It seems obvious that if we both benefit, and if our relationship is stable, trade is a good thing, but if we mean trade in strictly that sense, then it is unnecessary as a matter of fact.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                > Why would voluntary exchange for
                > mutual utility gains be an “evil” in
                > any way at all?

                Well, the “evil” bit is off, certainly. But there’s a difference between what we generally think of as “evil” (something bad) and “necessary evil” (rhetorical device to indicate it’d be better if we didn’t have to have this thing, but it’s currently better than any other alternative we’ve come up with).

                I am certainly willing to posit, generally, that there is a difference between single-actor moral questions (is it okay to kill myself or not), dual-actor, pairwise moral questions (can I trade this apple for his ear of corn), and multiple-actor, non-pairwise moral questions (can I trade this apple for his ear of corn when both of us have respective surpluses of apples and corn and everybody except us has neither).

                I don’t think commerce can be reduce to a finite set of pairwise dual actor moral questions, and I think that if your framework of defending commerce as a necessary good is built off of the premise that you can look at commerce as a finite set of pairwise dual actor moral questions, it’s missing something.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                would it not be better, at least, to be self-dependent? Or put differently, if we are dependent on others (through trade) for something, isn’t that worse than not being dependent on others (through trade)

                It’s a truism among economists that self-sufficiency is the path to poverty. I suppose one could make a theoretical argument that I might be better off if in fact I could satisfy all my needs and wants more efficiently by my sole efforts, but in fact we cannot do that. Imagine what it would take just to make your own clothes. You can’t just go out and buy the material, you have to make it, which means growing/killing/chemically producing it. You also have to make your own thread. And your own tools for sewing. And your own tools for making those tools. Now, when you’re well fed and well-clothed, make yourself a piano–oh, heck, let’s not be so tough, make yourself a guitar, for entertainment. Good luck.

                So an argument grounded in the real world leads to the necessary conclusion that, materially, we are in fact better off through trade than through self-sufficiency.

                Beyond that, self-sufficiency would probably destroy the basic need for sociality. Humans are social species; we need others for emotional/psychological reasons, not just material ones. Would we be better off as a solitary species? Umm, I don’t even know how to judge such a thing. But taken as we actually are, with our social nature, we psychologically need activities wherein we rely on each other.

                E.g., I was helping a colleague develop a survey today. He needed my expertise, but we also find it more enjoyable to work together than to work separately.Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

                PatC, this gave me a headache. Think I’ll go make myself some aspirin.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                {{{As usual, the contentious claim goes … unargued.}}}Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:


                I don’t agree with your comment at 3:05 p.m. I think you are making a distinction that doesn’t exist.

                As to your 3:02 p.m. comment, I think it’s not far off to say that government is essentially an evil (if we don’t take “evil” too strongly, as meaning absolutely demonic). First, the standard definition of government defines it as being rooted/based in force. I distrust anything that’s rooted in force of one person over another, although I agree that force is sometimes necessary. Second, governments seem to have begun as means of control of the general population by powerful elites, simply because they could exert that control. Nietzche’s will to power, if you will. We have co-opted that means of control, to sometimes–hopefully usually–use it for good ends, but at it’s root it remains an instrument of control, and one most lusted after by those most desirous of controlling others.

                At its very best government represents a necessary recourse to coercion to achieve ends we cannot achieve through more peaceful and voluntary means. Necessary, yes, but even at its best it represents a social failure.Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                James, I suppose when I talk about trade, I’m talking about a one for one exchange (not necessarily one item for one item, but one set of somethings for another set of somethings). So I would exclude, for example, a society that pools its resources. Imagine, for example, a community in which the land is communally owned, as are the seed stocks and livestock. Each person goes out and grows as much as he or she can, or tends to the flock as much as he or she can. You can add tools and so on to this. In this case, the society itself is self-sufficient, not any individual, so long as they have everything they need to get by. Trade would be necessary only to the extent that anything they need or want is possessed only by some group outside of the little community. Otherwise, there’s nothing to trade, because it’s all everyone’s stuff.

                This would actually be a pretty good society to illustrate Jason’s point about shame, too. Imagine a drunkard who doesn’t grow enough to support himself or his family. Maybe he’s too drunk to grow anything at all? In order for him and his family to survive, he has to be completely reliant on the group, to which he’s contributing only a few laughs (you know, when he stumbles over the pile of yams he didn’t grow). I imagine shame is a particularly appropriate, and useful tool in that situation.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                I’m in sympathy with TVD here, but in lieu of taking aspirin or even giving the matter deeper thought, I’ll take a chance on an answer.

                And my essential answer is that the non-pairwise part is irrelevant. I have extra apples, you have extra corn, and so we trade, and each of us is better off. This is a pareto improvement–we are better off and we have made nobody else worse off. That’s demonstrable, without resort to any handwaving about morality.

                Stillwater has neither enough apples nor enough corn. But we have not harmed him through our exchange. He is irrelevant to us, and our exchange is irrelevant to him. We have increased the net utility in the world without diminishing his.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                I suppose one could make a theoretical argument that I might be better off if in fact I could satisfy all my needs and wants more efficiently by my sole efforts, but in fact we cannot do that.

                What if we can? Well, needs anyway. Let’s say needs. Some level of needs.

                This isn’t meant to be facetious. Is commerce still necessary? Is it helpful to use commerce as our method of distributing everything? Why not use commerce as our method of distributing the “wants” part and give the “needs” part away for free?

                (I realize we’ll get into strong arguments about what constitutes what, but, you know… in theory).Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

                Dang, PatC, I just realized I don’t know how to make aspirin. What now?Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                “Stillwater has neither enough apples nor enough corn. But we have not harmed him through our exchange. He is irrelevant to us, and our exchange is irrelevant to him. We have increased the net utility in the world without diminishing his.”

                Well, that’s not a FYIGM.

                That’s a FTGWGO (F$%& Those Guys, We Got Ours).

                I’m pretty sure I’m not okay with that. On the flip side, I don’t know that I’m terribly empowered to do much to change anybody’s mind on that front.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:


                Self-sufficiency in a society is also the path to poverty…unless the society is sufficiently large.

                If we actually follow the logic of Adam Smith’s discussion (which I find that most people who refer to him, even those who refer positively, do not, unfortunately) it’s clear that his emphasis on specialization within a factory and his emphasis on trade are the same argument, not separate ones. Specialization is crucial to trade–if you and I each provide all our own goods, and they’re identical sets, we have nothing to gain from each other. It’s when I do something that you don’t and you do something that I don’t that we have something of value to trade.

                The logic builds up from this dyad. Our families can also specialize to some degree. So can our towns. So can our provinces. So can our states–even ones as big as the U.S. and Germany. (This is why national level trade barriers are ultimately as conterproductive as local trade barriers.) There’s no logical stopping point until we get to the global level, and it stops there only because there’s no extra-global entity to trade with. If we meet up with intelligent life in the universe, then our respective globes will find trade with each other beneficial.

                Yes, we can say our globe is self-sufficient and (on average) well off, not impoverished (and the poverty that exists is not a consequence of lack of interstellar trading partners). Any sufficiently large society can achieve this, because trade among its parts is functionally identical to trade between separate political entities. Disaggregate the U.S., making each state independent, then add a free trade agreement and a common currency, and economically not a lot changes.

                But set up trade barriers among them, and a lot does change. Does Washington suddenly become an impoverished state? No, but it becomes poorer than otherwise. Likewise, finding interstellar trading partners would increase our material well-being even more.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                But we have not harmed him through our exchange. He is irrelevant to us

                You know, abject disregard can be a form of abuse, bro.

                I’ll be alright, tho. I may even go steal me some apples.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                I just realized I don’t know how to make aspirin. What now?

                How bad do you want em? Are you willing to trade, say, half your fortune for some aspirin?Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                James, I’ll have to chew on the self-sufficiency is poverty thing, but for now, I can dig this answer too.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                You know, abject disregard can be a form of abuse, bro.

                Sounds like an a priori principle to me.

                But one I disagree with. I don’t believe we have those types of moral obligations to each other.

                That’s not to say it can’t be rational to give you an apple, in the hope of reciprocal exchange down the road. I just firmly reject the idea that I have any moral obligation to do so. And if I lack the apples and you have them, you have nor moral obligation to me.

                Seriously. I’m pretty sure that moral obligation is a common liberal assumption, but I just don’t buy it. I see it asserted–that’s where the hand-waving comes in–but I don’t see it demonstrated in a logically persuasive fashion.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                Well, insofar as the jokey part of that comment fell flat, the substantive point isn’t that you have a positive obligation to me in that scenario, but rather that your individual actions will lead to sometimes quite predictable consequences, consequences that need to be factored into the meta-calculus you apply to that scenario.Report

              • Avatar Ryan Noonan says:

                This is why I consider libertarianism basically intellectualized sociopathy.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

                The “apples-corn trade with starving bystander” is again one of those cases where I want to use my old line that this isn’t an economy, it’s a puppet melodrama.

                In a real economy of three people, with all resources accounted for, and with distributions

                Alice (two apples)
                Bob (two ears of corn)
                Chris (nothing)

                There are several things that could happen. But no matter what happens, everyone is at most a few days away from starving to death. Nothing they do can change that, and the only remaining question is whether they bear their deaths nobly or not.

                With that in mind, Alice and Bob could use their final moments on earth to provide some charity in extremis. Or they could prove a point about comparative advantage that they once read in an economics textbook. (Or they could indulge in cannibalism, which is historically and as a matter of fact how these things usually play out. Sorry, but it is.)

                But anyway. None of these gruesome endings is a reasonable guide to economic behavior in the real world. We simplify the story of comparative advantage so people can form an idea of it — which idea is best brought back into the real world as quickly as possible, because the textbook example is so simplified that it falls apart on a moment’s examination.

                In the real world, that idea works, and does indeed explain a lot, and the fact that the textbook example can be extrapolated rather ghoulishly in time doesn’t make a bit of difference.Report

              • Avatar Ryan Noonan says:

                Cannibilism is a ParEATo improvement!


              • Avatar James Hanley says:


                What you do with my body after I’m dead constitutes no harm to me. However my family has some claim to my corpse, so you’d have to negotiate with them. If there was a price at which you and they could agree, your consumption of my corpse would indeed be a pareto improvement.

                To say that not believing I have a moral obligation to others constitutes sociopathy is just that type of handwaving I was talking about it. It’s not an argument, but an appeal to emotion designed to shut down debate and avoid the difficulty of actually making an argument.

                The difficulty you have to overcome is that all evidence points to me not being a sociopath. I contribute to charitable and other non-profit organizations. I have a desire to help out other folks and feel good about doing so. That’s non-socio-pathic, but is distinct from thinking I have a moral duty to do so.

                Make an argument, please, because what you’ve done is just reinforce my current belief that in fact you don’t have a logical argument against my position.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:


                Sorry, missed the pun. Really sleep deprived (and a bit groggy from reading up on the history of the federal budget process, not exactly the most lively material). It deserved a +1, so consider this my +1.Report

              • That’s not to say it can’t be rational to give you an apple, in the hope of reciprocal exchange down the road. I just firmly reject the idea that I have any moral obligation to do so. And if I lack the apples and you have them, you have nor moral obligation to me.

                As you suggest later in this comment, people who, like me, are willing to entertain that such a moral obligation exists have so far done a poor job at convincing others who don’t already agree with us.

                However, I do wager that you would view an outcome in which someone starves to death (assuming it gets to that point) as something bad. Maybe this badness doesn’t imply that you have an obligation, but I think it implies that you would not want to see it happen.Report

              • Avatar Liberty60 says:

                I’m way late to this subthread, but I don’t accept Hanley’s argument at 3:32, that government is “rooted in force”.Its like some feminist scholar saying all sex is rooted in rape.

                Defining it this way is so broad, that nearly any exchange, even two mythical traders voluntarily exchanging goods in a forest somewhere is “rooted in force”, because we assume that traders can and will defend themselves from theft.

                All of which is true, except that now we have definitions that are so broad as to be useless.

                What society could even be imagined in which the threat of force is absent?Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:


                Well, what’s our standard for bad? I don’t believe in objective badness in that sense. I.e., the universe certainly won’t care; won’t even take note. It’s bad for that person, certainly, but our own disutility is our own problem, not others’.

                It might be bad for me. I might have reason to care–I might suffer disutility as a consequence of the starvee’s disutility. Maybe I like him personally. Maybe I foresee future material benefit to me from his continued life. Maybe I have a soft spot in my heart for suffering, and rescue drowning kittens and starving people equally. Maybe I took the story of the Good Samaritan very seriously. So I might do something. Ultimately, in a way, I’m doing it for my own utility, but the reason matters less than the outcome. There are many reasons I might help, despite not believing in a moral duty to do so.

                In fact I suspect that a good number of those folks at the Republican debate who chanted “let him die,” would have chucked in some money at a church fund-raiser to help “him” cover his medical costs.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:


                Your argument’s not with me, but with Max Weber. Frankly, I find him more persuasive, and I think there’s a reason why he’s still considered crucial for understanding the concept of the state. Here’s the most relevant section, fromPolitics as a Vocation.

                But what is a ‘political’ association from the sociological point of view? What is a ‘state’? Sociologically, the state cannot be defined in terms of its ends. There is scarcely any task that some political association has not taken in hand, and there is no task that one could say has always been exclusive and peculiar to those associations which are designated as political ones: today the state, or historically, those associations which have been the predecessors of the modern state. Ultimately, one can define the modern state sociologically only in terms of the specific means peculiar to it, as to every political association, namely, the use of physical force.

                ‘Every state is founded on force,’ said Trotsky at Brest-Litovsk. That is indeed right. If no social institutions existed which knew the use of violence, then the concept of ‘state’ would be eliminated, and a condition would emerge that could be designated as ‘anarchy,’ in the specific sense of this word. Of course, force is certainly not the normal or the only means of the state–nobody says that–but force is a means specific to the state. Today the relation between the state and violence is an especially intimate one. In the past, the most varied institutions–beginning with the sib–have known the use of physical force as quite normal. Today, however, we have to say that a state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory….Specifically, at the present time, the right to use physical force is ascribed to other institutions or to individuals only to the extent to which the state permits it. The state is considered the sole source of the ‘right’ to use violence…

                …Like the political institutions historically preceding it, the state is a relation of men dominating men, a relation supported by means of legitimate (i.e. considered to be legitimate) violence. If the state is to exist, the dominated must obey the authority claimed by the powers that be.Report

              • Avatar Liberty60 says:

                I need to outdent this- see below.Report

              • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

                This site needs a deeper thread limit.Report

              • James,

                Well, I guess in a sense you’ve shown that even my example purports a standard that, logically, is “objective” and that I haven’t demonstrated. And true enough, I haven’t demonstrated it.

                But as you mention with the “let him die” debate attenders–and I assume the same applies with most people here–people will (or might) still chip in to help the unfortunate.

                What I have a hard time seeing is how useful “utility” is in capturing the whole of this dynamic. I’ll leave aside the notion that we help people because we think they might later contribute to society or because we think we might need help someday, although both are either true or something to consider. I’ll also acknowledge that some people like to be seen giving to charity because that makes them seem nice.

                But I think some people–or even the same people who contribute largely for blatantly self-interested–help others because they really don’t like to see suffering. In a sense, not liking to see suffering and getting a kick out of helping others probably represents a utility in the sense you mean it, but there is still, I suggest, a notion that it’s the right thing to do.

                Now, I’m making some assumptions here about what “most people probably feel” and you make a very good point about “most people don’t necessarily feel that way” (or about “there’s no logically necessary reason why we should presume people do feel that way or act upon that altruistic standard”). But I do wonder–and I suppose in principle it’s a verifiable question–how many people do not like to see others suffer, especially when the suffering is more immediate and visible.

                I think perhaps I’m not expressing myself clearly. I guess what I’m saying in this already too long comment, that maybe there is such a thing as grace that surpasses any workable notion of utility. But I don’t have proof for it or even an arrangement of hypothetical premises that could make an argument for that to be sound. It’s a gut feeling. A dangerous thing, perhaps, but there it is.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                You’re quite clear, and I totally agree. Even down to us having “a notion that it’s the right thing to do.” I think we–generally speaking–do have that notion. And it’s a pretty valuable notion.

                But having that notion doesn’t mean there is in fact a moral imperative. There are lots of right things to do that aren’t morally required. And I’m certainly not arguing against people feeling that helping others is the right thing to do. I think it’s a better world overall when we do. Saying net utility is increased is just a bloodless way of saying folks are happier and the social world’s a more pleasant place.Report

              • I know what this thread really needs is yet another (!) comment from me, but here goes:

                But having that notion doesn’t mean there is in fact a moral imperative. There are lots of right things to do that aren’t morally required.

                Perhaps each of us is equivocating a bit, or at least being imprecise, when it comes to the relationship between “right thing to do” and”moral imperative.” I’ll clarify where I stand:

                1. I tend to believe that if something is “the right thing to do,” then it is a moral imperative.

                2. Sometimes moral imperatives conflict, and it’s hard to decide which one of two (or more) ought to be fulfilled, or how much of one’s resources one ought to devote to one (or more) over another (or others).

                3. Positing that something is a moral imperative does not necessarily imply the correct or most desirable means of fulfilling that moral imperative.

                4. Therefore, it’s not obvious that the solution to the starving commenter awaiting one of the surplus apples is some sort of intervention by something we would recognize as a state (and as Jason Kuznicki reminds us in his comment above, starvation is far from certain without such intervention).

                I suspect you disagree with point number 1, but that you probably agree with points 2, 3, and 4 (or some variant thereof).

                Finally, you’ve made a few statements about maximizing utility and happiness. I suspect those terms have some baggage that I’m not quite grokking, in part because I’m tired but also in part because I’m not as familiar as I ought to be with the language of economics, utilitarianism, and other systems of thought you mean those terms to invoke. So I confess I’ve been talking past those points or assigning my own definitions to them. (It’s too late for me to go on a googling spree.)Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                We differ on point 1. I see “the right thing to do” as meaning, “it’s nice and in some way makes the world a better place.” Not required because it’s not a binary option (right thing or wrong thing), but a trinary option (right thing, wrong thing, neutral thing).

                If I see someone who’s having a bad day, the right thing to do (as I use the term) is to comfort them. The wrong thing to do is mock them or in some other way make their day worse. The neutral thing is to do nothing, or if I do anything, do something that neither comforts them nor makes their day worse.

                If I could be talked into a moral imperative, it would be that we not do the wrong thing.Report

              • I’m sorry, I went to bed before responding. But I can certainly sign on to this:

                If I could be talked into a moral imperative, it would be that we not do the wrong thing.

                Of course and as you know, I believe there can be a positive moral imperative (to do something in addition to refrain from doing something).

                Although I don’t think I’m (necessarily) wrong, I do recognize that my belief in, or friendliness to the idea of, positive moral imperatives puts the burden on me to justify that belief. It also comes with an ancillary burden not to declare moral imperatives willy-nilly and use them as justification for all sorts of coercive practices in the name of noble-sounding mantras like “public good” or “helping the poor.”Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                I’m not sure either of those propositions is true, or even that they make sense. Government certainly isn’t necessary, as there have been societies that get by without any, and trade is only necessary if you can’t get what you need, or what you want, where you are. If you live in a place where you have food, shelter, clean water, and a social group, what do you need to trade for? Rocks for your monuments? Beads to look pretty? In what sense are those things necessary? Trade and government are both the sorts of things that, in a sense, make themselves necessary.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:


                I hesitated on the necessary part, too, but I’ll try to make the argument. Government may not be absolutely necessary, but for a society above some threshold size it almost certainly is. And trade is necessary because it is the key to growth in material well-being, and humans as a species do want growth in their material well-being (it’s not just a modern western ideology). So trade is necessary to satisfy a basic species-level drive.

                Those claims are debatable, of course. I think they’re true, but I don’t claim they are true with certainty.Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                James, I can dig that. If I read you correctly, you’re not saying that they are necessary in a logical sense, but necessary in a moral one: if we value, say, increasing human well-being, then both government and trade are necessary. I wonder, then, why they’re not both goods, under that view, rather than either being an evil?Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                if we value, say, increasing human well-being, then both government and trade are necessary. I wonder, then, why they’re not both goods, under that view, rather than either being an evil?

                That question should be an off the cuff post of it’s own.Report

              • Avatar Ryan Noonan says:

                Chris, that’s awesome. You’re on a roll here. And I think that gets right to the heart of it. Economists may believe that self-sufficiency is the road to poverty, but surely so is anarchy (and I don’t mean this as a pejorative w.r.t. to anarchy, which I am generally quite fond of!). Governments – good, stable ones that follow some predetermined rules – have been a massive force for the improvement of human well-being. If there’s one thing that underlines a modern left-liberal worldview, I’d say its something like that. And, frankly, I don’t think you can get out of it by pointing out that governments also do horrible things, any more than you can argue that trade is bad because some people get swindled.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                Let me take up Chris’s question, and then I have to run to my daughter’s CC meet (worst,. spectator. sport. ever.). I don’t actually have an answer, just some random thoughts that are not a coherent argument either way.

                I said government, at its best, is a solution to a failure; the failure of humans to solve problems through purely voluntary action. Perhaps the same is true of trade; it’s a solution to the failure of humans to achieve sufficient improvement of their material well-being solely through their own means.

                Are those comparable? The latter one–achieving material enhancement wholly on our own–is really a technical problem–we are bound by time, even if not by ability. Even if I am capable of doing absolutely anything, I do not have sufficient time to do everything.

                Is the former, achieving social organization solely through voluntary means, also a technical problem? Maybe–the theory of collective action would suggest so, and just the sheer fact that mere coordination increases in difficulty as numbers increase also suggests a technical problem. The question is, is it also a social problem? Or does that just layer a level of vagueness and hand waving on top of the more concrete and demonstrable technical problems?

                Can anything that does as much empirically demonstrable harm as government not be called an evil, at least as much as it is called a good? No human organization has ever been able to achieve the phenomenal scales of mass organization as well as government because none other can use force so effectively. But that means no human organization has been able to commit as much mayhem as government. Off the top of my head, Rudolf Rummel reports 35 million battle dead and over 100 million dead by democide in the 20th century–those numbers are not possible without government. On the other hand, absent government there plausibly aren’t even that many people who ever live.

                I can’t agree that government is simply a good. But maybe it’s not really quite proper to call it a bad, either. It’s a tool. Max Weber persuasively argues that government can’t be defined by its ends–there’s no goals it pursues that are unique, not pursued by other types of organizations–but only by its means. A gun has no end that other tools don’t have; it is just a distinct means. A gun is neither simply a good nor simply a bad.

                Maybe instead of “a necessary evil,” we should call government, “a useful but dangerous tool.”Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                frankly, I don’t think you can get out of it by pointing out that governments also do horrible things, any more than you can argue that trade is bad because some people get swindled.

                Not much time right now, but let me just note that levels of harm matter a lot. I recommend reading R.J. Rummel’s Death by Government. Swindles look pretty benign by comparison.Report

              • Avatar kenB says:

                we should call government, “a useful but dangerous tool.”

                Coincidentally, that’s how my colleagues describe me.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                Ken, at least they consider you useful. I’m pretty sure some of my colleagues consider me just a tool.Report

              • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

                Government is a necessary evil in the sense that even at its theoretical best, it still has very serious problems, both practical and ethical. There’s the deadweight loss from taxation, for example. Military spending is essentially 100% waste; the only reason we have one is to keep other countries from abusing theirs. Taxation is coercive, and a welfare state creates moral hazard. There are public choice issues.

                Government is a piss-poor solution to any problem. However, it does seem to be the only solution to a small class of problems.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi says:

                Commerce, more than half the time, depends on swindling people, or on convincing people that they need more bullshit in their lives.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                Data, please.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi says:

                It’s a swindle to put a smaller tank on a toilet, and sell it with the implicit claim that it’ll work just the same. Everyone except toto did it though.
                Cite: people hoarding pre-mid-1980’s toilets. Yes, you can look it up.

                Most private, not-corporate health insurance depends on swindling people for its profit margins. They have everyone convinced (rightly) that having preexisting conditions means no health insurance. They also have everyone convinced that they can/should lie. Take money, give nothing back. Make it the poor shmuck’s fault.

                Restaurants are another prime example. Who really wants to be waited on ahnd and foot, like a god-damn bush king?? People who love them some bullshit, that’s who! a restaurant would be a damn sight cheaper without the whole tipping/waiting/busing bullshit.

                Psychologists half the time end up being a substitute friend that people pay for…

                And 50% of doctors prescribe placebos. More bullshit clogging up our medical system.

                And we haven’t gotten into planned obsolescence…

                OR “the brand new thing” that just happens to be worse than the old thing — think Kindles in this regard.

                I’m sorry, this is just turning into a general bitch-fest. But, hell, you did ask for it.

                Want more?Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                Kimmi, I’ll just hit a few of your examples.

                Restaurants are another prime example. Who really wants to be waited on ahnd and foot, like a god-damn bush king?? People who love them some bullshit, that’s who! a restaurant would be a damn sight cheaper without the whole tipping/waiting/busing bullshit.
                That’s by definition not a swindle, because you explicitly agree that some people want that kind of restaurant. Those who don’t can go to any number of fast food joints. So there’s one example of bullshit.

                Psychologists half the time end up being a substitute friend that people pay for…
                A) You provide no evidence for the “half the time” claim. Source or STFU, please. B) Are you in a position to say that paying for a substitute friend isn’t a valuable use of some people’s money? Or are you just moralizing?

                50% of doctors prescribe placebos
                A) Source? B) Context?

                Re: Planned obsolescence. Most people don’t want their television or their refrigerator to last forever. If they have the money to upgrade eventually, they want to do that. Or they want to buy a new one just to keep up with new styles. Paying top dollar for a very high quality item you don’t intend to keep for as long as its functional isn’t necessarily rational.

                TVs are actually a very good example here. New TVs are not only higher quality–in terms of picture, sound, and functions–than older TVs, but they are cheaper (on an hours-worked-to-pay-for-them basis). So buying a really durable TV at T1 may be irrational, because while you’re paying for a TV that will last until T100, you’re only going to keep that TV until T50. It can be cheaper to buy two TVs in that time period than just 1, but only if they are designed with planned obsolescence in mind. Or think of it this way–would you be willing to pay twice as much for a laptop that is guaranteed to still turn on and work perfectly 25 years from now? Or a cell phone?

                (Now, me, I’m the guy who only buys TVs at garage sales, and won’t buy a new fridge despite the poor shape my old one is in. But I’m not the average customer.)Report

              • Avatar Reformed Republican says:

                It’s a swindle to put a smaller tank on a toilet, and sell it with the implicit claim that it’ll work just the same. Everyone except toto did it though.
                Cite: people hoarding pre-mid-1980?s toilets. Yes, you can look it up.

                This was not a swindle (at least not by the toilet makers), this was a response to government mandated water-use requirements.Report

              • Avatar NewDealer says:

                At James,

                Well said. I agree with you on this stuff.

                This is where a lot of people seem to confuse how economists think about efficiency.

                Normally, I see this in the debate about or Book Stores. A Tech writer will talk about how book stores are so inefficient compared t0 Amazon. My friend with a PhD tells me that in economics, a purchase is efficient if someone is willing to pay for it and thinks it is worth that price.

                So people who shop at book stores are being efficient because they want that experience and value in their community.

                I think Kimmi is largely moralizing.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi says:

                Yes, I said explicitly that restaurants are an example of bullshit. Particularly in that most of what you get there is far less healthy (in a health department sort of way) than what you could make at home.

                Yes, I am in a position to say that paying for a substitute friend isn’t a valuable use of money for most people who do such. As a major depressive episode (umm… ever) is considered a disqualifying preexisting condition, I’d venture to say that going to a psychologist may in fact increase stress levels over the course of someone’s life. [obvs. doesn’t apply if person is about to kill themselves, and may not apply to autistic spectrum folks.]

                Bullshit. Bunch of bullshit.

                People can’t see 32-bit color… (which, yes, is a bit different from digital/analog or higher resolution, both of which are fun things!)Report

              • Avatar Kimmi says:

                no, what toto did was a response. What the other people did was a swindle. I’m not sure how long it took them to do the R&D (wasn’t paying attention — were you?), but I’m fairly certain that they sat on their collective asses for well longer than necessary. American engineers ain’t that stupid.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi says:

                depends on who you think I’m moralizing AT.
                I know some high powered advertising folks…
                Yeah, humm…
                You just hafta ask how much of this bullshit
                you wuz trained to ask for.


              • Avatar wardsmith says:

                Kimmi, when you write like this I truly think you are 12 years old typing away in your mother’s basement.

                Re toilets, look up the 1992 the National Energy Policy Act (H.R. 776). And if you’re wondering who was responsible look no further than the Democratic Party.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi says:

                Bzzt. try again. believe you’ll find cali changed the rulz before the country did. instituting what’s already defacto law ain’t no problem.

                And you’ve set me off AGAIN. (Sorry James!)

                Yes, a great deal of scamminess with companies comes in the form of government regulation. At least waterpolicy and Cali makes some amount of sense! (at least it does if you remember the fight over Toledo). I can cite bike helmets (Insurance Companies!), anti-smoking laws (Insurance Companies!), and we mustn’t forget Accuweather (which nearly got the NWS taken down).

                Yup, scams.

                Now some of this may actually be appropriate government business (somebody like de nanny state!). White collar bloke like you probably hasn’t had to stand much in the diesel smoke of completely unfiltered bulldozers and crap…

                But a good deal of it is scams (and not all of that is because of interference. sometiems it’s just improper sunsetting).Report

              • Avatar NewDealer says:


                Again you make no citations.

                Prove that psychology is just paying someone to be your friend. I happen to think that psychology and mental health are often very valuable.

                Prove that half of doctors just dole up placebos. Sources please.

                As for restaurants, I like eating at restaurants because they can do much more original things with food than I can. And tastier stuff as well.

                What does your non-consumer economy look like? You are not the first and will not be the last person I have ever met that has argued against consumerism. But no one has an alternative for a non-consumer based economy. The only examples from history tend to involve masses of people living at sustenance levels.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                You know, Kimmi, my first draft of my response to you was really snarky. Then I thought, no, I’ll try to rise above that and be more cordial, so I redrafted it.

                A waste of time. Not just the re-drafting; even thinking about bothering to respond in the first place.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                Here’s one thing about TVD’s thesis that government is evil I find intersting (I think it generalizes to other conservatives):

                If think it conflates normative theory and actual practice. In theory, government ought not be necessary because if people were morally good, then the so-called necessary functions of government wouldn’t be necessary leaving only the bad stuff. So in theory, government is evil, and only leads to more evil.

                In practice, tho, things are a little more complicated for the conservative. Because people are (according to conservatives) immoral and in fact do act immorally, government minimizes those bad actions. So in practice government (or some level of government) is an unqualified good.

                The part I find interesting is the easy way the conservative moves between the ideal and real, the normative theory and the practice, without even an awareness that they’re doing so.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                I’m not terribly sure about what you say about conservatives (but not terribly unsure, either), but I do think you’re right that there’s the theoretical–in an ideal world gov’t would be unnecessary–and the empirical reality–in this non-ideal world gov’t. is necessary. But I think there’s a big leap from that to government being an unqualified good. At the least, wars, violations of civil rights, Syrian troops shooting people down in the streets….those, I think, qualify that good.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                Yes, you’re right. I put the important qualifier in parentheses: at least some level of government is an unqualified good.

                If we can’t have that limited good part without the unlimited arguably bad part, then we’ve got a problem with government, no doubt. I don’t think conservatives, liberals (of course!) or even most libertarians hold that view tho.Report

            • Avatar James Hanley says:


              Going to Best Buy is an irrational act. The whole business is just a grand experiment by behavioral economists to figure out just how flawed the rational actor model is.

              But more seriously, I agree with you that a business is just there to make money, and that we should legitimately be suspicious of them. I mean that with every serious bone in my body (and I’ve only got two funny bones). Adam Smith would fervently agree with us.

              But here’s the part I think liberals really have a tendency to miss. It’s not always in a business’s interest to screw you, because they can’t always make money by doing so. Most–not all, but most–businesses rely on repeat customers, and nearly (not quite, but nearly) all rely on good reputations. In other words, it’s not the businesses that keep themselves honest; it’s we customers who keep them honest. That’s the value of a market that gets overlooked. It’s just another way of talking about the discipline of competition, because they’re only indirectly competing with each other for money–they do that by directly competing with each other for customers.

              How does that work? Begin with a customer getting screwed, because obviously it happens sometimes (or at least they think they’ve been screwed–the functional result is the same because the behavioral result is the same). They shop elsewhere; they tell their friends; they write a letter to the editor. If the instances of customers getting screwed is actually rather rare, there may not be much effect (a lone voice in the wilderness and all that). But if the incidents are actually common, the public attention builds up and more and more people start avoiding that business.

              The guy here who insisted every business is trying to screw me makes me laugh. He said my mechanic was trying to cheat me–a guy who loaned my wife his personal car at no cost while I was out of town and he was fixing her car. In the last few weeks I’ve talked to several businesses about repair work on my house. One company I approached about gutters told me straight up that they’d take the job, but they’d just contract it out to this other company, so I’d get it cheaper if I went directly to them. Another company came out to give me an estimate on installing eaves vents, and the guy told me approximately how many (many) thousands of dollars it would cost, and continued on to tell me that in my house (because it’s ancient and not well designed for venting) it would do essentially no good, so I shouldn’t pay them to do it. A third guy came out to give us an estimate on repairing a plaster wall, told us straight up that for what we wanted he would charge us more than it was worth and took the time to explain how we could do it ourselves for much cheaper.

              What struck me in those cases was that in fact there was no exchange for value–each one recommended I not make the exchange because they couldn’t provide fair value in return. They turned down money they could have taken from me in my ignorance. Maybe I stumbled across the only three honest businesses in Michigan. Or maybe they realize that their reputation is their real profit center.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi says:

                +1. Many people live and die on their reps.
                And it is MICHIGAN. Trains run on TIME there. You ain’t in bumfuck (sciterm meaning middle-of-nowhere) Scotch Irish territory (don’t bitch at me, yinz hicks. I do got me some evidence I can cite if needed on this front. Now some of it was just historical prejudice, but they tried to hire yall, and it didn’t work!).Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                And it is MICHIGAN. Trains run on TIME there

                No, we have Amtrack, just like everyone else in the U.S. I never count on getting to Chicago on time. (Although, to be fair, they’re working on track upgrades that just might eliminate the problem of always having to stop for freight traffic, so we just might get Italianate regularity eventually.)Report

              • Avatar Kimmi says:

                hmm… appears to be a chi-town specific thingy.
                still, the variance in train experience/ontimeness is quite drastic, between routes. and not all of it explainable by who owns rails.

                my information, as usual, is well out of date. Thanks for the opportunity to refresh it!Report

              • Avatar greginak says:

                I agree James. I find the dogmatic gov/business is evil views to be simplistic and silly. However it is a bit naive to think we can always get a good deal or find an honest business. It makes us feel like we are in control which we all like. Some of us have more time and ability to figure out how to find a good business or honest deal.

                The other thing is to keep in mind who the customer of a business is. For example the customer of a bill collector is the business not the person they person they are trying to collect from. So it is in their interest to do everything they can up to get money out of people even if they push legal or ethical lines. It will make their customer happy. This is one of those complicated areas where simplistic views just don’t cut it.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                Nothing in there for me to disagree with. I’d just add, re: some people having more time and ability to find a good deal, that you won’t find many areas of life where some folks aren’t better off than others. And just as it’s important to understand who the real customer is in the market, it’s important to understand who the real constituency is in politics, and it’s not always the general public.

                There are no perfect systems. And it’s unlikely that we can look at any long-lived system and find that it’s wholly imperfect.Report

              • Avatar Dan Miller says:

                I think both you and Jason overestimate the prevalence of this train of thought among liberals, because of the context you encounter us in. When you’re writing blog posts about the topic of mutually beneficial exchange, it tends to be because the mechanism has broken down somehow–maybe there’s an externality or imperfect information or insider trading or some what-have-you. Are liberals more concerned, on the margin, with market failures than libertarians or conservatives? Yes. But it’s a long way from that to “mutually beneficial exchange is a nonstarter”. Yes, most of the time exchange is mutually beneficial. But that’s not a very interesting story, or one that’s useful to liberals ideologically, so it tends not to get told very often.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:


                Perhaps. But I’m not making it up when I say a liberal FPer on this very blog told me explicitly that in every exchange I make the business is trying to screw me. And stuck to the claim after I objected.Report

              • Avatar dexter says:

                James, No matter which side of the aisle uses absolutes I laugh.
                When I read what you have written I sometimes agree wholeheartedly, sometimes disagree wholeheartedly and sometimes think yeah but. Not once have I ever thought you were making things up.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                Then there’s at least one person here I’ve successfully fooled!

                (OK, seriously, I do appreciate that.)Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                I’m pretty sure James is making up the idea that he is a head in a jar. At the very least, he also has hands, unless he can type telekinetically, in which case, awesome!Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                Voice activated software, my Texas-fried friend. The “typos” come from my mumbling.Report

              • Avatar dexter says:

                James, When anybody uses an absolute to describe a tendency I laugh. One of my pet theories is that the only absolute is that there are no absolutes. What you have experienced in your dealing with companies is that most people are honest. I have found that most contractors are honest and will not try to cheat, but there are the exceptions.
                In one of Jared Diamond’s books, I forget which one, he tells about a mining company in the Rockies that took all the value out of the mine, gave themselves large bonuses and then declared bankrupty leaving the environmental damage for the government to clean up. Then there is Diamond talking about a Chevron field where they spend vast sums of money making sure that there is no environmental damage without talking about what Chevron has done in Ecuador or that he gets money from Chevron. Then there is the tainted milk, the killer dog food, the oxycontin killers, the banks, BP killing people in the Gulf to save money, robo signing for defaults and etc, etc, etc.
                I don’t need protection from my mechanic, I need protection from the megacorps.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi says:

                Most contractors are honest, up until the point their back is at the wall. Then they cheat like sons of bitches. But you can’t blame them too hard.

                Just gotta know what a desperate man looks like, and not deal with him.Report

              • Avatar Robert Greer says:

                James, I think you’re right that liberals often neglect the customer pressure variable, but you have to remember that the people you deal with have a small-town businessperson outlook, which is more conservative than libertarian because it’s tied up to notions of personal decency and community. I bet if you asked your good-neighbor businesspeople why they didn’t bend you over the table, they’d be more likely to say something about personal morality than bottom lines. Now if you want to posit that this particular morality arises in small-town situations because of the likelihood of iterated interactions, I’d agree, but that explanation has more moving parts and is less flattering to knee-jerk libertarianism — i.e., it has more in common with conservative and local-crunchy #OWS sensibilities — than your simpler rational-actor model.

                Also, there isn’t anything in your explanation that would preclude the customer and the firm from screwing over non-parties to the transaction. But maybe we talked enough about externalities in your other thread.Report

              • Avatar greginak says:

                To extend what RG said since many businesses are national or global corps there are far fewer ways to presure them. Just as a national gov is distant from the people so are large corps.Report

          • Avatar NewDealer says:

            I don’t think that all business people are trying to swindle people.

            I do believe that there is such a thing as disparate bargaining power and am suspicious of things like binding arbitration a scam in contracts of adhesion. I generally also think that at-will is more friendly towards the employer than the employee.

            Arbitration can be great if between two equally sophisticated parties. Marvel and DC are fine in dealing with binding arbitration clauses. Mr or Ms. Smith against Megacorp, not so much often.

            Likewise, disparate bargaining power is what makes Freedom to Contract a sham and Lochner a joke. It is one thing for a skilled professional with five or more years of experience to bargain with an employer. It is entirely another thing for an un or low to moderate skilled worker to do the same. It is a fiction to say that the bakers in Lochner really wanted to work those long and brutal hours.Report

          • Avatar MikeSchilling says:

            That’s not a contradiction. Trade can be more mutual benefit, if both sides are careful and suspicious. Otherwise, one side is going to wind up with a spare set of clothing and the other naked.Report

            • Avatar James Hanley says:

              Agreed. But I think the evidence of world history shows that on net it’s been far more mutually beneficial than swindlish (if I may coin a term). If not, people would shy away from it much more, and the world would be less economically advanced than it is.

              On the other hand, if there was even less swindling, so that we could have more trust, the world would probably be yet more economically advanced.

              Humans aren’t inherently bad, but neither are they inherently good. Evolution doesn’t care much for normative concepts like that.Report

              • Avatar MikeSchilling says:

                No real disagreement, just pointing out that “trade is overall beneficial” and “they’re all out to screw me” are not mutually contradictory. Just-so stories about how profit is always moral if it arises from mutually agreed-upon exchanges are more libertariansplainin’.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        I just noticed this really great Q & A:

        Chris asks: “Where does the moral obligation to work come from?”

        Jason answers (roughly, he expands on this):

        The moral obligation to work comes from a bare fact of nature, plus the categorical imperative.

        The bare fact of nature: Manna doesn’t fall from heaven.

        The categorical imperative: Act so that you could will the maxim behind your action to be accepted as a universal law.

        I’m a bit sad that I missed out on this in real time, since it’s a great discussion.

        Here’s my thoughts: Jason’s first response does not imply a moral imperative to work. It’s just a brute fact of the world that if you can’t provide for yourownself, you might wind up dead. In the world we live in, providing for yourownself requires work to produce or create sufficient value that you can keep yourself alive. (Except for those who are provided for by others, either privately or publicly.)

        Jason’s second argument from the categorical imperative is, in my mind, only conditionally true: it assumes that the maxim of “failure to produce value sufficient to keep yourself alive” can’t be universalized. But it can! It’s just that if it were universalized, the world would be a pretty bleak place.

        But that gets us back to Chris’s question: why is working a moral obligation? It seems to me the only reason anyone would have a moral obligation to be productive is because we accept a different moral principle: that if you can’t pay your own way, someone who is able to ought to help you out. But if that’s right, then the moral obligation to work derives from the moral obligation to help others who can’t pay their way.

        I dunno, tho. maybe that’s all wrong.Report

        • Avatar James Hanley says:

          I think Jason committed the naturalistic fallacy in extrapolating from a brute fact of nature to a moral duty. I don’t think there’s a moral obligation to work. I just think you’d damn well better if you care about yourself because there’s no moral obligation on anybody else to help you out if you don’t.Report

          • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

            The problem with this approach is that it puts *all* the burden on the individual.

            I think history shows us that a goodly number of the individuals can’t handle it, for various reasons.Report

            • Avatar James Hanley says:

              True. But there’s a giant logical leap from “I can’t handle it” to “you have a duty to help me handle it.” Nature, the universe, natural selection, they don’t care. They don’t impose moral principles. Caring, to some extent, happens to be our evolved nature, so we care, to some extent. It’s natural to do so. But we can’t logically extrapolate from that to a claim of moral duty.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                I’m not entirely certain that all moral duties are reducible.

                In fact, I’m pretty sure they’re not. I suspect rather that the meaningful ones are irreducible. Other moral claims that are reducible are reducible only to irreducible moral claims.

                So the claim “Any individual A has a potential duty to help some individual B in a set of individuals S under condition ?” is either granted, or not granted.

                I don’t think you’re going to derive it from somewhere else.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                And that’s my problem with moral reasoning in a nutshell.

                I’m fine with the fact that there’s always some irreducible level at which we have to just make unprovable assumptions on which our argument rests. There’s no way around that. I’m not fine when that irreducibility is at such a high level; when it’s the kind of thing that itself ought to have at its basis, perhaps more than one level down, some other irreducible assumptions.

                That’s why I’m pretty sure that ultimately all moral theory is just handwaving of various degrees of elegance.

                If we want to say moral values are just social conventions, I’m fine with that. But social conventions are mutable and ignorable (at one’s own risk, of course), not ultimate truths of any sort.Report

              • Avatar Robert Greer says:

                How does this moral relativism relate to libertarians’ adoration of the non-aggression principle, I wonder?Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                I prefer moral nihilism to relativism. And to be fair to other libertarians, I think most of them don’t exactly share my views here. They may agree we don’t have a moral duty to care for others, but they’re unlikely to accept my particular basis for that claim.

                It does make my objection to aggression problematic, though. I’ve backed off the moral claim about it in recent years and relied more on a pragmatic, utilitarian, claim. It provides a good baseline principle–without it we are in a Hobbesian world.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                But there’s a giant logical leap from “I can’t handle it” to “you have a duty to help me handle it.”

                Yes. Good point. Let me try again. Maybe it’s better to say it this way: the intuition that people have a moral duty to provide for theirownselves via productive work derives from a more basic moral intuition most of us feel that if you can’t provide for yerownself, I will feel compelled to provide for you.

                I mean, the moral obligation to work just seems like a constructed obligation to me: there’s nothing basic about it, especially insofar as it applies to others. I might have a sense of a duty to myself to work, but even that, I think, is frought with confusions. In what would the duty consist (in the this context) except a duty to not be a burden to others? But I can only be a burden to others insofar as they already feel a moral compulsion to help me meet my needs.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                I think all of that might work really well if that word “moral” didn’t keep creeping in. “Feelings” and “senses,” I can buy, because I experience them and witness others experiencing them. They’re also not compulsory to have, nor compulsory to act upon. “Moral” seems to come in from from some undefined space and change all that.Report

        • Avatar Chris says:

          I actually agree with Jason’s Kantian formulation (which I’ll rework a bit, though I think it amounts to the same, or a consistent thing): if we value human life, that is, if we see humans as ends and not strictly means to ends, then it is not possible (ethically, not logically or psychologically) to will that I should not work, because it is not possible to will that no one should work. We’d all just wither away and die that way. But part of where I am trying to go with all of this is that, given that our current system treats people as merely means to an end through work, in order to make this moral imperative to work consistent with the basic moral logic of treating people as ends, and not merely as means, we have to either radically rework the system to make work unalienating, unrepressive, dignified, and free (I think this should be the ultimate goal), or at the very least, make working a choice. In our current system, working itself is not a universalizable imperative.Report

          • Avatar Michael Drew says:

            This is where the rubber of voluntarism hits the road. Does that fact that you have done something voluntarily definitionally imply that you are not being treated as a means to an end by someone, or is there some definitional or perhaps indeed practical distance between what the former necessarily implies about an arrangement and what is necessary for that arrangement to satisfy the definition of the latter?Report

            • Avatar Chris says:

              Michael, I’m not sure whether voluntarily doing something excuses anyone else’s behavior. I am sure that in our current system, work isn’t voluntary in any ethically meaningful sense. At least not for anyone who has to work in order to survive (in which case, not working is suicide, and suicide is problematic on the same ethical principle).Report

          • Avatar James Hanley says:

            Serious question: If someone makes a moral claim on me, are they seeing me as a means, rather than an end?Report

            • Avatar Chris says:

              The answer is, it is possible, even for Kant, to treat someone as a means, as long as they aren’t treated merely as one.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                So the “merely” does a lot of heavy lifting in this discussion, is that right?Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                It does a lot of heavy lifting in the Kantian system, because it is the basis of it. The idea is that I am a rational creature (broadly speaking; practically, my girlfriend sitting here says emphatically that I am not rational in practice), with a rational will, and therefore I am an end in itself. Now, I can treat even myself, which is an end in itself, as a means, as I do when I use my body and mind to meet the ends that I rationally will, so it is possible to treat myself as an end and as a means. However, it is not rationally possible to treat myself as merely a means, because I am an end in itself. Since ethics is the unviersalization of this individual principle, by extension then I can’t treat you, or any other rational will as merely a means.

                Anyway, Kant does a much better job of spelling this out. Much of the second Critique is devoted to it, but you can find it in condensed (and brilliantly formulated — Kant is a great writer, even if some people think he’s dry) form here.

                Just hit Control-F and search for the phrase “All objects of the inclinations.” Read that whole paragraph and the one that follows it, and you’ll see what I’m trying to say.

                I’m not a strict Kantian, but I think the idea of treating people as ends in themselves is a pretty good basis of ethic that affirms life, that seeks to minimize cruelty, maximize freedom and dignity, and the other sorts of things that an ethic should do.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                Thanks. I wasn’t nitpicking, just clarifying something I hadn’t really quite caught before.Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                Oh, I didn’t think you were nitpicking. Jason and I were both eliding a lot in talking about the Kantian formulation, on the assumption (I suppose) that we’d each read enough Kant, or enough about Kant, to know why we were formulating it that way. So it really needed to be clarified, and justified, a bit.

                Without the “merely,” Kant’s system not only would forbid just about any interaction with anyone else ever, but it would also forbid doing anything at all, because to do so would involve using one self as a means to an end (by, say, walking, or reaching, or moving in any way).Report

    • Avatar Ramblin' Rod says:

      This is the where I have a hard time with the whole “shame for receiving public assistance” comes in.

      On the one hand we’re told we have an obligation to work and to not be a burden on others. Okay. Fine.

      But then, the very same people who pontificate on this ethic, seem to be the same people who are doing everything in their power to make that as difficult as possible. We’re not supposed to worry about the balance of trade (What? Don’t you care about poor people in China!!??), or the consequent growing income and wealth inequality.

      The plain fact of the matter is that it’s all about arithmetic. Just add up the normal and reasonable lifetime expenses of an average Joe. Not just food and shelter but also insurance provisions for health & disability, savings for retirement, education. Basically everything that would be necessary to live your life without being a burden on others… and it simply can’t be done on a median income, much less on a lower quintile income.

      I’m not asking for welfare. I’m not looking for massive redistribution. I’m looking for an economic system that doesn’t rig everything so hard against the average guy.

      If we’re going to have a society that insists upon the work ethic and income self-sufficiency, then the society had better well be at least capable of making the meeting of that ethic possible.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        It’s an instance of the “ought implies can” principle, yes? The moral claim that a person ought to be self-sufficient is true only if they in fact can be self-sufficient. And society has a legitimate role to play in enforcing that moral imperative thru shame only to the extent that society has fostered (rather than hindered) an environment where that moral obligation can be met.Report

        • Avatar Ramblin' Rod says:

          Precisely, Still. Thank-you. And what I find frustrating about these sorts of conversations on this site is… how do I put this? It has a distinct feel of “wealth-splaining” to me. Not as bad as, but not totally dissimilar to Mitt Romney’s wholly apparent and complete lack of understanding of what it’s like to NOT have money. Or more likely, a kind of forgetting.

          When I look at the FP’ers here, and many of the regular commentators, it becomes apparent that most are highly, or at least decently, paid professionals–doctors, lawyers, college professors, lots of software developers, business people, etc. There are exceptions, and it’s true that I don’t have a clear idea of what some of you do or what approximately your income level would be as a consequence, but I would venture that, as a rule, we’re talking about a bunch of top 5%-ers here. Keep in mind, that’s only about $100,000/year to be in that club.

          And the interesting thing about that statistic is that that’s precisely the career/income group that has maintained purchasing power parity over the last few decades, unlike the bottom 80%+. For the rest of us, our economic lives have been getting progressively more desperate as time goes on. When I was a kid growing up in the sixties, it was normal for an average working guy to be able to buy a house in the suburbs, have a new car every few years, save for retirement and the kid’s college fund, take a vacation to the mountains, and to do all that while his wife stayed home. Not every one could do that; the bottom quintile has always existed, and it helped a lot to be white. But it was at least a not unusual situation. It was called “shared prosperity” and it was a good thing. Now? Not so much.

          The bottom line is that life-time income self-sufficiency is out of reach for MOST PEOPLE in this economy. Therefore, by Jason’s reckoning, most of us should feel shame at least some part of their lives.Report

          • Avatar Stillwater says:

            Awesome comment, Rod. Very interesting take on things. I think you’re probably right about that.

            And I love the gravatar.Report

            • Avatar Ramblin' Rod says:


              And the gravatar is me in your rear-view mirror. If I can find a shot like that of a Lonestar edition International truck you will surely know fear. Bwah-ha-ha!Report

          • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

            I think your comment gives us a good sense of why Christopher’s latest FP post was so valuable to me.

            As for not having money, well… at this point I’m still basically month to month.Report

  8. Avatar MikeSchilling says:

    Do I even need to point out the worst example of this kind of shamelessness? Hint: most welfare recipients don’t get to pay themselves bonuses. Sports team owners too, of course, who not only accept free stadiums from their local governments, but demand them and threaten to leave if they don’t get them. In both cases I’d argue that the rot of entitlement-generated moral decay is in an advanced state.Report

  9. Avatar North says:

    I’m puzzled as to where you can still find people saying it’s just fine to choose not to work and instead live off welfare left or right? Heck, you can’t live on welfare indefinitely now, or at least not unemployment specifically.Report

  10. Avatar Lawprofsr says:

    It’s a trap if you’re liberal and you find yourself arguing that there are no able-bodied, shameless, charity/welfare recipients. Heck, there are able-bodied shameless full-time employees who seem entirely focused on working as little as possible and exploiting every excuse possible to shirk some more. I think the workers’ comp and disability systems include plenty of people who have figured out how to game that system to take an effective early retirement, more so than welfare, and with less stigma. The problem is twofold: 1) it’s hard to tell the shirkers from those who are doing their utmost but are in actual need of help (not really the topic of this post); and 2) it’s hard to tell the ashamed from the shameless. Human beings are complicated. People who feel deep shame aren’t always able to openly express that, or even admit it to themselves. I suspect that sometimes those who are the most ashamed are the ones who end up sounding the most entitled. They might do that out of aversion to those feelings, or they might have become motivated to identify systemic problems that really have contributed to the shameful state they are in. And yes, blaming the system can be a self-serving rationalization. But it can also be true.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

      I’m sure that we can always scare up a few. More if we’re less inclined to be charitable.

      The point of the stigma is that they are fairly few, which I agree is the case. When people are potentially entering this category, they know it, and they act to avoid it.Report

  11. Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

    Thanks for this, Jason. It’s a lovely post.

    Question though: Is a sense of belonging necessary to make noblesse oblige a viable concept for society? In which case, how do we foster that sense?Report

    • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

      You can’t, in a pluralistic society. You have to appeal to too many different frameworks, some of which have conflicting base principles. (disclaimer: opinion)

      So chuck pluralism, or give up the idea of systemic noblesse oblige.Report

    • Avatar Roger says:

      With noblesse oblige license plates.

      We color code license plates to display those that give substantially more than the requirement to charity or government. For example, silver plates for those giving an additional 5% over their income tax obligation to the IRS or approved charities. gold plates at 10% and platinum plates at…

      I would love to see which CEOs, politicians, celebrities or pro athletes are not giving to others when they drive up in their Benz or Bentley.Report

      • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

        I actually had a similar idea for non-fiscal contributions to society.

        We don’t give public recognition to those who really do a lot of the scut work.Report

      • Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:

        Nah, I prefer to continue to use collective action to increase taxes on everybody.Report

        • Avatar Roger says:


          I am not sure if you are being serious or facetious. The process of displaying philanthropy works regardless of the tax level. Are you just worried that it would reveal how stingy progressives are with their own (rather than others) money?

          The unintended consequence would be shame in driving expensive cars without platinum plates. Sell your stock in Lexus and BMW.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        Love it, Roger. Then we’ll know who’s truly shameless, rather than just hiding behind their anonymity.Report

      • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

        This only works if not giving is considered shameful.

        Based on the fact that Steve Jobs still has a substantial posthumous fan-club, I’m not inclined to say this is the case.

        Instead, you’d see variations of the “but he improves lives through his work! Why are you demanding he give to charity?!” arguments.Report

        • Avatar NoPublic says:

          I am constantly amused (and/or bemused) by people who bag on Steve Jobs for his alleged lack of charity.

          The truth is that you know nothing about how charitable he was. Nor do I.

          You would also be hard pressed to find this information on me. I have only occasionally claimed charitable donations on my taxes, though I much more frequently make them. And I often make them anonymously. And I’m not even a socially reclusive billionaire.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        Do teachers get a “good” color?Report

  12. Avatar wardsmith says:

    Jason, kudos to you for tackling this difficult and delicate subject in this venue. You could have done something similar at Cato but wouldn’t have received the liberal pushback there however your hide would certainly be more intact. The basic problem isn’t your premise, that in /some/ societies people would be shamed to receive welfare assistance. The basic problem as NANCY PELOSI’s own daughter discovered is shameless welfare recipientsReport

    • Avatar Ryan Noonan says:

      Come for the theory of government, stay for the unhinged rants about Nancy Pelosi! The League has everything I want!Report

      • Avatar wardsmith says:

        Did you click on the link Ryan or are you just playing moron today? At what point do I rant about NANCY PELOSI? The point I was making (lost on you for obvious reasons) was that her own daughter with no effort whatsoever found “shameless welfare recipients” literally right in her own backyard. Now to call Alexandra Pelosi a conservative would be a bit of a stretch, no?Report

        • Avatar Ryan Noonan says:

          Son, I don’t play moron. Blog commenting is a serious business.

          I’m just glad the only people who are literally in my backyard are the ones I invited to be there.Report

          • Avatar DensityDuck says:

            Sounds like FYIGM…B.Report

            • Avatar James Hanley says:

              As a liberal, he doesn’t want to share his own backyard–he wants government to take a large part of your backyard for a public park.

              Just jokin’, Ryan. As a libertarian I’m contractually obliged to make over-the-top digs at liberals at least once a week. I tried being nice one week, but the libertarian conspiracy took me to court to enforce the contract. I said, wait, libertarians turning to the government for help, what’s up with that? They said, what are you, some kind of anarchist?Report

  13. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    I think it’s time to cite Burt Likko’s Three Classes again.Report

  14. Avatar Brandon Berg says:

    I’ve been thinking about this in relation to a comment someone made in a recent thread. There’s an important difference between saying that it would be good for us to provide food, shelter, health care, etc. to those who need it, and . If you have a right to something, you’re not doing anything wrong by claiming it—you’re just collecting a debt that’s owed to you.

    It needs to be universally understood that a person who takes more from the government or charity than he pays in is a burden on his fellow men—that other people who worked hard for their money are making sacrifices to compensate for his failure to provide for himself and/or his family. That this is not a debt that is owed to the recipient, but a sacrifice made out of benevolence or taken by force.Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

      This sentence got cut off somehow:
      There’s an important difference between saying that it would be good for us to provide food, shelter, health care, etc. to those who need it, and that everyone has a right to these things.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko says:

        If it is the case that it is to my advantage (and by extension to the advantage of a large number of people economically similar to me) that the government provide food, shelter, education, health care, and other kinds of financial support for those in my community economically unable to obtain those things for myself, then why would I object to paying taxes and those tax dollars being used for that purpose?

        Fleshing it out: I’m a lawyer. I benefit from a populace that gets at least high school education, because people with high school educations are more likely t0 earn enough money to hire a lawyer from time to time to assist with their legal issues like when they get divorced or need a will drafted or something like that. So I like it that there is free public eduation. Let’s say I get taxed, oh, $2,000 a year and that money is used to pay to provide education for free to every kid in my community. If I make more than $2,000 a year in fees from people who, without the advantages of free public education, would not be able to afford a lawyer’s assistance at all, aren’t I better off paying for public schools than I would be without them?

        Or am I engaged in the moral sin du jour, rent-seeking, by looking at it this way?Report

        • Well, your rent’s gotta come from somewhere. Report

        • Avatar James Hanley says:

          You’re missing the collective action problem aspect of it. Sure, someone’s got to pay for the education, but your contribution isn’t critical to the achievement of it–the education won’t fail to happen if you don’t pay, and it won’t successfully happen if only you pay–so why should you be satisfied with paying? In either case you’re better off not paying (if you can get away with it).Report

          • Avatar Burt Likko says:

            Well, let’s assume I can’t get away with not paying it. Say, it’s a property tax rather than an income tax, so if I don’t pay my house gets a tax lien and eventually foreclosed upon or is paid off from my portion of the proceeds when I sell it. Or otherwise write the possibility of evasion out of the hypo, in any fashion you care to.

            My question is: if the tax were somehow economically efficient — meaning that I receive more value from the system I pay into than I have actualy paid in — then why should I object to it?Report

            • Avatar James Hanley says:

              Oh, me being a rational choice theorist, I’d still object that the system would work just fine even if I didn’t pay. 😉

              But, no, you’d have no great grounds for objection, only annoyance that you couldn’t manage to shirk it.Report

              • Avatar Burt Likko says:

                I rather thought that was the answer. The only objection I’ve been able to concieve of is the hard-libertarian one — I didn’t affirmatively choose to participate in it and therefore even if it benefits me it is an intrinsic wrong.

                But given that I’m better off for having been forced to participate in it than not, that seems like weak ketchup; at some point, consequentialism plays a strong hand against deontology.

                So then it comes down to a value judgment — do I get more out of the public welfare system than it costs me? That, in turn, depends on how broad the focus is set at for description of the benefits of public welfare. If the focus is broad enough, then the economic efficiency of the tax-and-spend regime becomes a realistic possibility, or at least one upon which reasonable people can disagree in good faith.Report

          • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

            “From now on I’m thinking only of me.”

            Major Danby replied indulgently with a superior smile: “But, Yossarian, suppose everyone felt that way.”

            “Then,” said Yossarian, “I’d certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way, wouldn’t I?” Report

        • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

          It’s not entirely clear to me how this is related to my comment.

          Also, I don’t think that your example actually makes sense from a rent-seeking perspective. There’s only so much money to go around. Increasing or decreasing access to education might affect the distribution, but it probably wouldn’t actually have much of an effect on your nominal income.

          Where education (supposedly) helps you is actually in its impact on general labor productivity. When labor is more productive, that means more stuff to buy with all that nominal income going around—i.e., a fall in real prices. That benefits everyone, though. The only real rent-seeking opportunity in increasing funding for education is for teachers and administrators.Report

  15. I have been terribly busy all day, but I’ve been wanting to comment on this since it was first posted.

    In general, I can’t really argue with anything expressed in the post. I think there most certainly should be a stigma attached to receiving public assistance rather than working if one can. And I most certainly have seen people do it, so I do not think raising the topic is railing against an invented specter. I think a great many physicians have had experience with patients seeking to receive disability for dubious reasons.

    I do have one thing I’d like clarified. Does receiving Medicaid count as receiving public charity, for which people should feel ashamed? I would disagree with that. Since “shame” implies that a person has acted in a way other than they ought, I do not think it applies to people who are paid too little to afford medical care for their families. Many employers cannot afford insurance for their workers, and wages may be too low for hard-working people to buy it themselves or pay for medical expenses, especially if they happen to have some kind of chronic condition. Should there be a stigma attached to giving them public assistance to cover their medical costs if they are working hard at low-paying jobs? I think not.

    Since this post seems to pertain more to people collecting unemployment, I may be asking about an unrelated topic. But it does seem related, particularly given our recent conversations elsewhere.Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

      Since “shame” implies that a person has acted in a way other than they ought, I do not think it applies to people who are paid too little to afford medical care for their families.

      If you can’t afford medical care for yourself and your children, you can’t afford to have children. If you can’t afford to have children, you shouldn’t.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:


        But you are leaving the door wide open for the liberals to jump in and take you by the throat.

        Joe had a good job, could afford kids, then one day he had a stroke, caused by a weakened blood vessel nobody had any reason to suspect was there. He can no longer work.

        It’s a fair example to ask you to address.Report

        • Avatar Stillwater says:

          But you are leaving the door wide open for the liberals to jump in and take you by the throat.

          On more levels than the one you mentioned.Report

        • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

          Joe had a good job, could afford kids, then one day he had a stroke, caused by a weakened blood vessel nobody had any reason to suspect was there. He can no longer work.

          Well, in a saner society, purchasing insurance against this sort of thing would be the expectation and the norm—there would be a stigma against failure to do so. Given that in our culture this just isn’t something most people would ever think about, Joe’s situation is fairly sympathetic. His situation does not follow predictably from anything he did. Nor are there any significant moral hazard issues with providing him with charitable assistance.

          Of course, this is not the typical case. Most welfare recipients are not like Joe, and most rich people are not like Paris Hilton, but a great deal of left-wing rhetoric seems to be premised on the assumption that they are.Report

      • I suppose this means that you’re in favor of publicly funding birth control for poor people then, right? Or are you suggesting that poor people should never have sex?

        And what of the person who was able to afford health care for their family when their kids were born, but then lost their job and was forced to take lower-paying employment without health insurance? Should they be stigmatized for having children in the first place and trying to take care of them? And what of the person who makes a decent living, but whose employer does not provide health insurance, so they self-insure, except that their family gets hit with a medical catastrophe in excess of their self-insurance? Should they have never had children?Report

        • Avatar James Hanley says:

          I believe there was a famous Irish writer who proposed an elegant solution to this problem.Report

        • Or suppose they eschew having children, being insufficiently affluent. Then the wife discovers a lump on her breast, or the man finds a strangle-looking mole on his shoulder. What then? Should he not have married her, being insufficiently affluent? Should he be ashamed if he cannot afford to cover the costs of the very expensive treatment for that unexpected melanoma and receives Medicaid?

          And how much should one be able to afford before one can unashamedly have children? Asthma? Diabetes? Leukemia?Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            Would “books and the time to read them to the child” be considered overly judgmental?Report

          • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

            Should he not have married her, being insufficiently affluent? Should he be ashamed if he cannot afford to cover the costs of the very expensive treatment for that unexpected melanoma and receives Medicaid?

            Marriage (or more precisely, cohabitation) reduces expenses relative to two people living apart by eliminating redundancy. There’s no reason to stigmatize marriage, because it doesn’t create any kind of burden on society. Arguably they should be ashamed about not having bought insurance, though Obamacare kind of obviates the need for a stigma around that. In any case, that has nothing to do with them getting married.

            And how much should one be able to afford before one can unashamedly have children? Asthma? Diabetes? Leukemia?


        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

          There was a time when one might have appealed here to the faculties of discretion and of judgment.

          Yes, that time was a really fraught one in terms of gender, class, race, and whatnot. But… have we no use for those faculties at all anymore? It seems like they are precisely what I’m appealing to. Brandon, if he had any good sense at all, would appeal to them likewise. And I can only presume that he does.Report

          • Avatar North says:

            If you’re talking about a time when people en mass judiciously chose not to have kids because they didn’t feel they could afford them I’m going to go out a limb and guess.. umm never?Report

            • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

              Given that the number of childless-by-choice couples and single-child families these days is greater than at any time in the past, I’d think that time is now.Report

          • So, if I’m parsing your comment correctly, you would say that having a family whose medical expenses exceeded one’s means is a failure of discretion and judgment, and thus seeking coverage from Medicaid for those costs should be a source of shame?Report

          • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

            That wasn’t entirely clear, but I think I see what you mean. You’re talking about discretion and judgment in the application of the stigma, right? Then yes, of course. Obviously there are people who end up in need of assistance despite diligent efforts to avoid such a situation, and they deserve sympathy and are worthy of assistance.Report

        • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

          Nah, we should just sterilize all people who make less than the federal poverty level.Report

        • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

          I’d even go so far as to say that the government should pay the poor to use verifiable birth control, if it can be shown that this pays off in the long run. It’s not ideal, but it’s certainly preferable to the government’s current policy of perpetuating and expanding the cycle of poverty.

          And what of the person who was able to afford health care for their family when their kids were born, but then lost their job and was forced to take lower-paying employment without health insurance?

          I agree that it’s not really reasonable to expect someone to plan for a major long-term reduction in his income, though it is reasonable to expect people to establish some kind of safety buffer before having children, though.

          Again, this is not the norm. The nice thing about stigma is that it can make allowances for special circumstances in a way that government policy can’t.

          And what of the person who makes a decent living, but whose employer does not provide health insurance, so they self-insure, except that their family gets hit with a medical catastrophe in excess of their self-insurance? Should they have never had children?

          Yes, of course there should be a stigma attached to failure to purchase insurance when you can’t actually afford to self-insure. If you can afford to self-insure against moderate but not extreme expenses, that’s what high-deductible plans are for.Report

  16. Avatar Liberty60 says:

    @Hanley at comment #111-

    Well of course the state is rooted in force- but so is any other exchange; So how does this observation become a useful tool of discussion?

    There does not exist any truly voluntary exchange, since hovering in the background is the implicit threat of force, whether by the actor behaving with permission of the state.
    In fact, there is no such thing as a stateless society- there is always some entity somewhere that maintains order- pure anarchy never exists.

    So we arrive back at square one- all societies that we can conceive of have a state, and all states have a monopoly on force, and all transactions are conducted within this framework.

    So to say one prefers voluntary transactions to coercive ones is to say “I prefer [this thing which doesn’t exist] to [this thing which exists always and everywhere]Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:

      Well of course the state is rooted in force- but so is any other exchange…There does not exist any truly voluntary exchange, since hovering in the background is the implicit threat of force,

      This is nonsense. The fact that when you and I meet in a wilderness far away from civilization you could take something from me by force, and vice versa, in no way implies that when we each decide not to use force but exchange peacefully instead that we have not engaged in a truly voluntary exchange. In fact we have chosen to engage in a truly voluntary exchange instead of engaging in force. We had options, we chose B instead of A. That doesn’t mean B actually is A.

      By your logic, your marriage is actually non-voluntary, since you could have just taken your wife by force.Report

      • Avatar Liberty60 says:

        How is it “voluntary” to say, “I choose not to steal and provoke a violent confontation which may result in death”?
        The threat of force itself is strongly coercive for you to make the correct choice, and trade instead of steal.

        The state of pure freedom of choice never exists- there is always some aspect of limitation on choice, coercion of varying degrees, force or the threat of force. Assailing government as being unique in its reliance on force is simply untrue- all engagements rely on it.Report

        • Avatar James Hanley says:

          Look, I think this claim that the potential for violence means a choice is not free is just unsupportable. You’re making a claim of a link but you haven’t demonstrated the logic of that link. Your final line says “all engagements rely on” force. Seriously? You and I are here at the League; how does that “rely” on force? I stop at the local Burger King for a Big Mac for lunch–how does that “rely on” force? Tell me how your marriage proposal to your wife relied on force.

          Yes, there is always a threat of force, but that doesn’t mean every interaction relies on force. That’s an illogical connection. The voluntary aspect is in the choice to not use force–you keep overlooking that. You want to define away voluntarism by pointing out the potential for force, while ignoring that voluntarism is the rejection of the use of force.

          I’ve been disturbed in the past by your evident comfort with force, but I had not expected you to conflate force with voluntary action. You collapse the distinction so that there is no voluntary action, ever, and every action we take is the consequence of force–that’s really convenient for what seems to be a desire to normalize force, so that its use can be justified. But to me that’s a damned peculiar game, and one whose consequences I shudder to think about. If every action relies on force, so that every action is a consequence of force, then the argument against coercion of people becomes moot–it’s just a question of who is applying the force. And the government application of force to every action we make–total government control–has been justified.

          You come across as a nice guy, but increasingly I think there’s a disturbingly authoritarian streak in you.

          Now I know that wasn’t the most charitable reading, but I put that out there as the direction that I think your argument necessarily goes. And given your arguments in the past, I have been primed to think of your arguments as being based on having more qualms about voluntarism than about coercion.Report

          • Avatar Liberty60 says:

            I think you are seeing this as much more polar than necessary- pure freedom of choice on one pole, and brute force on the other, voluntary versus coercion.

            Lets continue with the mythical encounter of traders.
            You say we can choose not to use force- yet our choice is not completely free;We aren’t faced with two indifferent options, but one that is slightly unpleasant (having to part with our goods in exchange) and the other that is very unpleasant (a violent encounter).

            Our choices are constrained, the dice are always weighted. Its true, our choices are not absolutely dictated, but neither are they completely indifferent. It isn’t a polar option of freedom versus dictate, but varying degrees of preference.Report

  17. Avatar ktward says:

    It’s [regrettably] possible that I’ve missed a previous comment that drew attention to the point I’m about to make. (Y’all have become popular, and I only have so much time.) Sincere apologies if that’s the case.

    But if you’re going to drag Murray (of all people for a libertarian to cite!) into your effort to make a point, then I don’t see why Frum (of all people) shouldn’t be taken at least as seriously as you when it comes to dissecting Murray’s altogether controversial perspectives.

    there are worse things in the world than the prospect of a modicum of shame, particularly when it comes with a chance at total redemption.

    Ask today’s typical Republican/conservative what he thinks of that. I take it that you realize that the GOP seeks to weaken, if not ultimately obliterate, the very safety net that you refer to as potentially redemptive.Report

  18. Avatar ktward says:

    As a mostly unrelated aside …

    I really do love this place. I wish I could hang out here more often than I can.

    I don’t wanna name names ‘cuz I like a bunch of y’all and seriously appreciate your perspectives (having little to do with agreement, if it must be said) but I will suggest that you should hang onto the pediatrician. He’s not only got well grounded ideas, but he’s movingly eloquent to boot. That’s a combo hard to come by. Just saying. (Fine. I’m partial to awesome peds. I had one for my own kids. So sue me.)

    Carry on.Report

    • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

      He is the most delightful member, I think. It shows most when other people say things that ought to be grievously offensive to him in particular; he’s unfailingly polite well past my tolerance level, and I’m a pretty even keeled dude. Doc’s the one that brought me here, actually, although he didn’t know it at the time.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy says:

      Here, here. The doctor should be locked in a basement and flogged unti he agrees to write more on the FP. That’s how much I like him.Report

    • What a lovely and gracious thing to say. Thank you. It is a true honor and a source of genuine joy to be a part of this community, with its brilliant and thoughtful contributors and commenters alike.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        The doctor should be locked in a basement and flogged

        What a lovely and gracious thing to say.

        Truly the doctor is, as Pat argues, “unfailingly polite.”Report

  19. Avatar GordonHide says:

    I am a determinist. I guess the difference between me and some other posters here is they view the physically and mentally able poor as being lazy or as having made life decisions that are “their own fault”. So they seem to have no difficulty piling on even more misery in order to coerce some of these into work.

    For my part I agree that we need to, if we can, persuade people to be more self sufficient, but I would rather look for a carrot rather than a stick method of doing so.Report