Poverty: The Stages of Blame
By Bryan Caplan
I’ve repeatedly argued that there’s a connection between (a) how deserving the poor are, and (b) how the poor ought to be treated. Unfortunately, as soon as I make this deliberately vague claim, many readers rush to ascribe specific, silly views to me. To preempt future misinterpretations, I now sketch my view in greater detail.
1. Claims about desert and poverty are meaningful. Asking, “Does he deserve to be poor?” can be rude, but that doesn’t mean the answer is “No.”
2. A person deserves his problem if there are reasonable steps the he could have taken to avoid the problem. Poverty is a problem, so a person deserves his poverty if there are reasonable steps he could have taken to avoid his poverty.
3. Common sense can usually resolve whether reasonable steps to avoid poverty were available to a particular person. A good rule of thumb: If you wouldn’t accept an excuse from a friend, you shouldn’t
accept it from anyone.
4. The fact that a person deserves his poverty does not imply that it is morally wrong to help him.
5. However, the fact that a person deserves his poverty is (a) a strong moral reason to give him low priority when weighing how to allocate help, and (b) a strong moral reason not to force a stranger to help him.
6. The fact that a person does not deserve his poverty does not imply that it is morally wrong not to help him.
7. However, the fact that a person does not deserve his poverty is (a) a strong moral reason to give him high priority when weighing how to allocate help, (b) an extra moral reason for individuals morally responsible for his poverty to cease and remedy their wrongful behavior, (c) a moral reason to force these morally responsible individuals to cease and remedy their wrongful behavior, and (d) a plausible though not totally convincing moral reason to force strangers to help the deserving person if the benefits heavily outweigh the costs.
Coming soon: What these claims imply about government policy and personal behavior.
HT: Bill Dickens for spurring me to clarify my position.