Krugman, Human Weakness, and Desert
By Bryan Caplan
Krugman makes fascinating concessions to David Brooks:
I don’t care how many factory jobs have been lost, it still doesn’t make sense to drop out of high school.
True enough. But suppose we apply the same logic to another problem, say obesity:
don’t care how little manual work Americans engage in these days, or
how available fast food has become, it still doesn’t make sense not to
stay at your ideal weight through diet and exercise.
This is also true — yet few people do this (I don’t, although I’ll get on the treadmill in a few minutes)…Nobody — not William Julius Wilson, not Larry Mishel, not yours truly — denies that the bad effects of reduced opportunity would be much less if people always did what was in their best long-term interests. But people often don’t,
which is why loss of economic opportunity can be socially as well as
economically destructive. That’s not crude materialism, it’s saying that
people are human.
Two questions for Paul, one economic, one moral:
1. If people often imprudently respond to reduced opportunity, they might imprudently respond to increased opportunity as well. Suppose the government makes welfare payments more generous. Probably the wisest strategy for the poor would be to (a) take the money to make their lives better now, but (b) keep working hard to permanently escape poverty by finishing school, acquiring job skills, and delaying parenthood. But how realistic is this? Won’t many succumb to the very “human” temptation to take the money and stop trying to better themselves?
If this sounds like behavioral econ plus early Charles Murray, it is; Scott Beaulier and I flesh out the argument in detail in our “Behavioral Economics and Perverse Effects of the Welfare State” (Kyklos 2007).
2. When someone drops out of high school, overeats, or fails to exercise, you tell us that their behavior is only “human.” But if a conservative or libertarian objects to paying taxes to help people who make these choices, you get angry. Question: Why are you so forgiving of people with irresponsible lifestyles, but so
outraged by people who don’t want to pay taxes to help people with
irresponsible lifestyles? This seems morally perverse. If you’re going to single anyone out for condemnation, it should be the person who behaves irresponsibly in the first place, not the complete stranger who asks, “How is this my fault?”
It’s tempting to insist, “We’re all sinners.” But the hard fact is that there’s a lot of variance in the population. People with extremely responsible lifestyles are just as human as anyone else. They’re not gods, just mortals who do the right thing. We should hold them up as role models, instead of attacking them if they complain that they’re taxed enough already.
P.S. For more, see my recent debate with Karl Smith.