Balan and the Deserving Poor
By Bryan Caplan
In last week’s debate, David Balan surprisingly endorsed the old-fashioned view that only the “deserving” poor are entitled to taxpayer assistance. As the debate proceeded, however, he admitted that in the real world, a lot of undeserving poor would receive support as well. The problem, if I understand his position correctly, is that we don’t have the political will to distinguish the two.
I found this a rather cavalier admission. If the government taxes us to satisfy our obligation to the deserving poor, it seems like a gross breach of trust for the government to turn around help any Tom, Dick, or Harry who happens to have low income. If a philanthropist gives you money to help war orphans, you’ve got a moral obligation to look before you hand over his money – to make a good faith effort to check whether the person you want to help is a bona fide war orphan. The governments’ responsibility to taxpayers seems at least as strong. Isn’t it especially outrageous to misuse charitable funds if the donors cannot legally discontinue their support?
I grant that if there’s a legal duty to support the deserving poor, it’s forgivable for an occasional undeserving recipient to slip through the government’s safeguards. But that’s no reason for David to enthusiastically support government programs that blatantly ignore desert. If I were him, I’d be embarrassed by Medicaid and Obamacare’s misuse of taxpayer funds. In fact, I couldn’t in conscience support them. I’d keep thinking, “It’s wrong to turn our backs on the deserving poor, but that’s no excuse for forcing taxpayers to support the undeserving poor, too.”
My point: You don’t have to be a libertarian to admit that government is treating taxpayers unjustly. If taxpayers have a legally enforceable obligation to help the deserving poor, taxing them to discharge their obligation is only fair. But if government taxes the public for the benefit of people they’re not obligated to support, even social democrats should start to wonder whether taxation has become theft.