Who Really Cares About the Poor?: A Socratic Dialogue
By Bryan Caplan
Glaucon: Can you believe all these rich jerks who refuse to help the poor?
Socrates: I’m puzzled, Glaucon. You’re rich, but I’ve never seen you help the poor.
Glaucon: I gave five gold pieces this year. But I’m not talking about charity, Socrates. I’m talking about last night’s vote in the Assembly.
Socrates: Sorry, I didn’t attend. What did I miss?
Glaucon: And you call yourself a philosopher! Fine, I’ll tell you. The democratic faction – to which I happen to belong – proposed a new law to give ten gold pieces a year to every poor Athenian.
Socrates: From the public treasury?
Glaucon: Yes, from the public treasury. Anyway, we democrats called a vote – and the aristocratic faction voted us down. How can they be so uncaring?
Socrates: Why do you assume the aristocrats voted No because they were uncaring? Did they say, “I’m voting No because I don’t care about the poor”?
Glaucon: Of course not. No one admits such things.
Socrates: So, what objections did the aristocrats voice?
Glaucon: Oh, the usual. They said our meager program would turn poor and rich alike into lazy bums. The poor wouldn’t want to work if they got free money, and the rich wouldn’t want to work if they had to pay the taxes required to fund the program.
Socrates: Sounds overstated. Divide by ten, and they’re right. Any other argument?
Glaucon: Yes. Many also insisted that, “It’s my money.” They earned it, so they shouldn’t have to share it.
Socrates: And they’re wrong?
Glaucon: Of course they’re wrong! We’re a community, we all depend on each other and we’re all obliged to take care of each other. If they had an ounce of compassion for disadvantaged Athenians, they would have voted Yes.
Socrates: Then I have good news for you.
Glaucon: Good news? What in Greece are you talking about?
Socrates: The good news is that you – and your fellow democrats – can still fulfill your obligations despite the aristocrats’ resistance.
Glaucon: What, revolution?
Socrates: No. Just tell me this: What is your annual income?
Glaucon: A rude question, Socrates.
Socrates: Is it? If I recall, your poverty law would have required everyone to tell the Assembly their income.
Glaucon: I seem to recall you claimed ignorance of our proposal. Very well. I make 1000 gold pieces a year.
Socrates: Glad to know you’re prospering. And what do you need to avoid hunger and homelessness?
Glaucon: I’ve got three kids, so 100 gold pieces a year.
Socrates: Seems high, but let’s run with it. You make 1000 gold pieces a year, but only need 100. That leaves 900 gold pieces a year.
Glaucon: I can do arithmetic, Socrates.
Socrates: Most rich men can. Here then is my advice: Give your extra 900 gold pieces to the poor. Urge your fellow democrats to do the same.
Glaucon: Charity?! Your cure for Athenian poverty is to impoverish me? Surely you jest.
Socrates: I know you can’t personally cure poverty, Glaucon. But you can save a dozen poor families from their plight. And when you’re done, you’ll still live comfortably.
Glaucon: Why should I?
Socrates: Unlike the aristocratic faction, you care about the poor, do you not?
Socrates: If you have the means to help people you care about, shouldn’t you help them?
Glaucon: Sure, if it would do any good.
Socrates: It seems like your 900 gold pieces would do a great deal of good.
Glaucon: Wouldn’t cure poverty.
Socrates: Granted, but so what? Imagine a father has ten children, but only enough food to keep one alive. If he cares about his children, what will he do?
Glaucon: [sigh] Pick one child and give him the food.
Socrates: Indeed. If you truly care for the Athenian poor, you will heed his example.
Glaucon: My poverty law would have helped vastly more than I ever could.
Socrates: Perhaps. But your path remains clear. Give your extra 900 gold pieces to the poor. Then explain your reasons to your fellow caring democrats.
Glaucon: Why should we be singled out for suffering?
Socrates: If you’re as caring as you say, you’ll suffer more if you keep your money.
Glaucon: Funny, I hadn’t noticed I was suffering.
Socrates: Could a caring father eat a feast while his children starved?
Glaucon: [sigh] No.
Socrates: Why not?
Glaucon: Because every bite would remind him that people he cares about need it more.
Socrates: Indeed. By the way, I don’t mind if we continue this conversation tomorrow.
Glaucon: Do you have someplace to be?
Socrates: No, but I thought you might want to run home and donate the 900 gold pieces. It’s hard to talk philosophy when desperate people you care about await your assistance.
Glaucon: If you’re going to mock me, go join your aristocratic friends and mock us at the next Assembly.
Socrates: They’re not my friends. Democrats and aristocrats alike sin against philosophy.
Glaucon: Look, why should the aristocrats get to free ride? They should contribute to solve the problem of poverty just like everyone else.
Socrates: If they’re as uncaring as you say, how are they “free riding”?
Glaucon: Don’t they benefit from the knowledge that every Athenian has a decent standard of living?
Socrates: Caring people like you benefit from such knowledge, no doubt. But your heartless aristocratic opponents will take small comfort from this realization.
Glaucon: They may be aristocrats, but they’re still human.
Socrates: Hmm, that’s the first kind word you’ve ever had for them, so far as I recall. I concur. Aristocrats, like democrats, are not bereft of compassion.
Glaucon: Many even give to charity.
Socrates: According to my friend in the Bureau of Athenian Economic Statistics, aristocrats actually give a higher share of their income than democrats.
Glaucon: Well then! So they do care and they are free riding after all!
Socrates: Perhaps. But now I’m more puzzled than ever.
Glaucon: What is it now?
Socrates: When an aristocrat gives 100 gold pieces to the poor, what does it cost him?
Glaucon: 100 gold pieces.
Socrates: Right. When an aristocrat votes for a measure that raises his taxes by 100 gold pieces, what does that cost him?
Glaucon: 100 gold pieces, again.
Socrates: Does it? Was last night’s proposal decided by a single vote?
Glaucon: No, the final tally was 555 to 450.
Socrates: So if one aristocrat had switched his vote, the final tally would have been 554 to 451?
Socrates: And your measure still would have lost?
Glaucon: We are a democracy, Socrates. So yes.
Socrates: Then it’s hard to see how an aristocrat saved any money by voting against your measure. Whether he voted Yes or No, his taxes stayed the same.
Glaucon: Your point being?
Socrates: Your opponents didn’t vote No because they were “uncaring,” because any one of them could have switched his vote without paying one copper piece extra.
Glaucon: Maybe they voted No because they foresaw a tiny probability of tipping the election.
Socrates: Perhaps. But what about all the No voters who donate to charity? Why would someone willing to hand the poor money out of his own pocket be so eager to guard against a small chance of paying extra taxes to help them?
Glaucon: Don’t make me guess. Just tell me.
Socrates: Very well. The simplest explanation is that the aristocrats sincerely believe the reasons they stated. They’re worried about disincentives – and they think that whoever earned his money deserves to keep it.
Glaucon: Bah. If they’re so wonderful, they’d happily donate all their surplus riches to the poor, right?
Socrates: I don’t remember discussing whether anyone was “wonderful.” But yes, if they deeply cared about the poor, they would give away all their extra income.
Glaucon: But almost no one does that.
Socrates: Then almost no one deeply cares about the poor.
Glaucon: So your point is that democrats and aristocrats are equally bad?
Socrates: A question for another day. But at least on the issue we’re discussing, my point is that you democrats are worse.
Glaucon: Worse? How could we possibly be worse than them?
Socrates: They live up to their stated principles. You don’t live up to yours.
Socrates: The aristocrats say that people who earned their money deserve to keep it. That’s perfectly consistent with voting against last night’s proposal. And it’s perfectly consistent with their failure to give away all the income they don’t need.
Glaucon: And we democrats?
Socrates: You say we’re obliged to care for all our fellow Athenians. That’s arguably consistent with the way your side voted last night – though you really should look more closely into those disincentive effects. But your principle is inconsistent with your failure to give away all the income you don’t need.
Glaucon: Nobody’s perfect.
Socrates: Indeed. But please remind me, how much did you actually give to charity this year?
Glaucon: Five gold pieces.
Socrates: Then your deviation from your stated principle is extreme. You should have given 900. You only did 5/900ths of your duty, leaving 895/900ths undone.
Glaucon: Funny, I don’t feel like an awful person.
Socrates: I’ve never thought so. But if your moral principles are correct, an awful person is what you are.
Glaucon: Why do I keep arguing with you, Socrates? There’s no need to be rude.
Socrates: I’ve tried to make my points with utmost civility. All I’m saying is this: Your principles and your behavior can’t both be right. Change one, and I’ll invite the aristocrat of your choice to my next dialogue.
And don’t worry, I’ll treat him with utmost civility.