Poverty: The Stages of Blame Applied
By Bryan Caplan
What do my stages of blame imply about real-world poverty policy?
1. As I’ve argued in detail here,
poor healthy adults in the First World are largely undeserving. Indeed, few are even objectively poor; just look at the many luxuries the American poor typically enjoy.
2. People who used to be
healthy adults in the First World are also largely undeserving. As long as they were healthy enough to work for a
couples of decades, the vast majority could have easily saved enough
(or purchased enough insurance, annuities, etc.) to protect themselves from unemployment, accidents, sickness, old age, and other perennial troubles.
3. Genuinely poor
children in the First World are deserving. But the people who bear
primary moral responsible for their plight are their parents, not strangers.
“Don’t have children until you are ready to provide for them” is a simple,
effective way to greatly reduce the risk you and your children will live in
4. In the First World, people who develop severe health problems early in life are often deserving. I say “early in life” for reasons explained in #2, above, and “often” because many people with severe health problems are self-supporting or can rely on their families for help.
Although #3 & #4 are not morally responsible
for their plight, this hardly implies that total strangers are morally responsible. So the strong duties to “cease and remedy” don’t apply. To make even a plausible case for forcing strangers to help them, you have to show that the benefits heavily outweigh the costs. This is harder than it sounds; see e.g. small estimates of the effect of health care on health outcomes.
6. Unlike First Worlders, poor
Third Worlders – adults as well as children – are usually deserving. Why? Because most will remain absolutely poor even if they are models of bourgeois virtue.
Third World poverty exists for multiple morally blameworthy reasons.
The fact remains, however, that most of the Third World’s poor could escape poverty if First World governments respected their basic human right to sell their labor to willing First World employers.
8. First Worlders who support immigration restrictions are therefore morally responsible for Third World poverty, and are obliged to
cease their support for immigration restrictions and remedy the harm
they have done.
9. This does not mean, however, the First Worlders are collectively morally responsible for Third World poverty. While most First Worlders support the status quo or worse, a sizable minority are politically inactive or even oppose immigration restrictions. Forcing the latter group to help the Third World poor (e.g. via foreign aid) is unjustified unless the benefits heavily outweigh the costs, which they probably don’t.
In sum: The stages of blame, combined with basic facts about poverty, are deeply consistent with a radical libertarian critique of the status quo. Modern social democracies force their citizens to help their countrymen even though the latter are largely undeserving – and often not really poor. The most that could be justified is a rump welfare state that helps poor children and people who develop severe health problems early in life. At the same time, social democracies deliberately and massively increase global poverty by banning employment contracts between citizens and foreigners.
Like it or not, much-maligned U.S. Gilded Age poverty policies – minimal government assistance combined with near-open borders – were close to ideal. And the broadly-defined poverty policies of much-beloved post-war social democracies are morally perverse – enforcing absurdly inflated moral duties toward poor citizens while slandering poor foreigners as criminals for using the most realistic strategy they have to avoid poverty: getting a job in the First World.