Our Poverty and Theirs
By Bryan Caplan
I regularly praise Nicholas Kristof’s courageous essay on Third World poverty. While First World immigration policies and Third World economic policies cause enormous harm, the global poor exacerbate their woes with grotesquely irresponsible behavior. Kristof:
[I]f the poorest families spent as much money educating their children
as they do on wine, cigarettes and prostitutes, their children’s
prospects would be transformed…
…Here in this Congolese village
of Mont-Belo, we met a bright fourth grader, Jovali Obamza, who is
about to be expelled from school because his family is three months
behind in paying fees…
…The dad, Georges Obamza, who weaves
straw stools that he sells for $1 each, is unmistakably very poor. He
said that the family is eight months behind on its $6-a-month rent and
is in danger of being evicted, with nowhere to go.
The Obamzas have no mosquito net, even though they have already lost
two of their eight children to malaria. They say they just can’t afford
the $6 cost of a net. Nor can they afford the $2.50-a-month tuition for
each of their three school-age kids.
“It’s hard to get the money to send the kids to school,” Mr. Obamza explained, a bit embarrassed…
In addition, Mr. Obamza goes drinking several times a week at a village
bar, spending about $1 an evening on moonshine… almost as much as the family rent
and school fees combined.
I asked Mr. Obamza why he prioritizes alcohol over educating his kids. He looked pained.
Other villagers said that Mr. Obamza drinks less than the average man
in the village…
I was disappointed, then, to learn that Kristof’s view of American poverty is rather fatalistic:
One delusion common among America’s successful people is that they triumphed just because of hard work and intelligence.
In fact, their big break came when they were conceived in middle-class American families…
Kristof is far more forgiving of Rick Goff of Oregon than Georges Obamza of Congo:
acknowledges his vices and accepts responsibility for plenty of
mistakes: He smoked, drank too much for a time and abused drugs. He
sometimes hung out with shady people, and he says he has been arrested
about 30 times but never convicted of a felony. Some of his arrests were
for trying to help other people, especially to protect women, by using
his fists against bullies…
generation or two ago, Rick might have ended up with a stable family
and in a well-paid union job, creating incentives for prudent behavior.
Those jobs have evaporated, sometimes creating a vortex of hopelessness
that leads to poor choices and becomes self-fulfilling.
has been considerable progress in material standards over the decades.
When I was a kid, there were still occasional neighbors living in shacks
without electricity or plumbing, and that’s no longer the case. But the
drug, incarceration, job and family instability problems seem worse.
Why can’t people like Rick escape from poverty through old-fashioned puritanism? Kristof just changes the subject:
some people born into poverty manage to escape, and bravo to them. That
tends to be easier when the constraint is just a low income, as opposed
to other pathologies such as alcoholic, drug-addicted or indifferent
parents or a neighborhood dominated by gangs…
these men sometimes make bad choices. But just as wealthy Americans
inherit opportunity, working-class men inherit adversity.
The knee-jerk response is to demand consistency: Either blame the poor – Americans and African – for their bad choices. Or excuse the poor – Americans and African – on account of their bad upbringing.
But the mere demand for consistency ignores a key fact: From cradle to tomb, Africans endure far harsher conditions than Americans. Poor Africans grow up physically malnourished. They have little exposure to sober bourgeois habits – even in school. Once they enter the labor market, their prospects are grim unless they somehow escape to the First World. Poor Americans, in contrast, are almost never hungry. Their teachers expose them to the bourgeois way of life. And in the labor market, poor Americans earn incomes that poor African migrants bet their lives to enjoy.
Even if you maintain that African and American poverty are both forgivable, then, you should still concede that African poverty is more forgivable than American poverty. While the African poor could sharply improve their lives with better choices, even perfect choices are not a reliable way for them to escape poverty. Poor Americans, in contrast, can reliably avoid poverty with basic prudence: finish high school, work full-time, delay child-bearing, and stay sober. “I couldn’t escape poverty even if I tried” has to be more forgivable than “I could have escaped poverty if I tried, but I sadly wasn’t raised to try.”
P.S. Critics often ask me, “Who cares who’s to blame for poverty? How does that help us fix the problem?” My deep response is to reject their moral monomania. Questions of moral blame are intrinsically interesting and important even if better answers won’t help us ‘solve problems.'”
My direct response, though, is two-fold. At minimum, blame provides a compelling criterion for the rationing of limited charity. If we can only help 100,000 people, we should prioritize the morally blameless, and put unrepentant libertines at the bottom of the list.
In addition, though, blame helps us correctly identify “problems.” If your suffering is entirely your own fault, the main “problem” is not your suffering. The main problem is that the guiltless may feel guilty for failing to help you. Thus, if a woman catches her husband cheating and resolves to divorce him, the morally relevant danger isn’t that the husband will feel sad, but that the wife will feel sorry for him. If your habitual drunkenness destroys your family and career, the morally relevant danger isn’t that total strangers fail to help you, but that the fallout of your vices will weigh on the consciences of innocent passersby.