05 January 2012

Still No Sympathy for the Poor

Here’s Bryan Caplan:

What about the "losers"?  Bite your tongue.  When you call lower-income people "losers," you're falsely assuming that we're all racing for the same finish line: material success.  But to a large extent, lower-income people are just racing for other finish lines.  Leftist outrage over income inequality is therefore deeply misguided.  To a large extent, incomes differ because priorities differ.  And if the poor don't consider their lack of riches a big deal, why should anyone else?

As I wrote before, most poor people are where they are because of the choices they’ve made in their life.  In fact, it is fair to say that, all things being equal, they don’t want to be rich.  They would rather have whatever they have instead of wealth.

Note that this isn’t some deep psychological analysis, but rather a tautology:  by their fruits ye shall know them.  You can tell that most poor people want to be poor (or, more accurately, have what they have instead of wealth) by the mere virtue of the fact that they are poor.  At this point in time, the markers of poverty are fairly well-known, and so only the astonishingly ignorant do not know what is needed to avoid poverty.

Thus, most poor people know that their past actions would likely lead to poverty, yet they made them anyway.  Since they knowingly made those decisions, they are no more deserving of anyone’s pity than child who sticks his finger on a hot stove after being told not to do so.


  1. I agree with Caplan's assessment about priorities differing, and also with yours that choices are what separate the poor from the wealthier people - no matter how high that scale goes. Someone who has $1 less than you is "poorer" than you.

    But in my former career as an educator in impoverished inner cities, I've found it true that choices make the situation, but also that poor people refuse to acknowledge their own complicity in their continued poverty. They have been told their poverty is not their fault, and so have no real reason to make better choices, because their will to change matters not since it is always someone else holding them back. (I'm not agreeing that is the case, just trying to sum up the attitude).

    Prioritizing purchases is one aspect of choice that can keep you impoverished or not. What is more important when living on a limited income: the fact of wealth as measured by sound housing, good nutrition, and family stability, or the outward appearance of wealth as measured by luxury cars, large flat-screen TVs, iPhones w/ data plans, and lots of parties?

  2. @MadBiker- Dalrymple has an interesting perspective on this in his book, Life at the Bottom (search for the review). I recall one anecdote from that book, wherein Dalrymple told of some poor people who would eventually admit their complicity in their own poverty, if confronted and pressed with it (usually by a series of leading questions). I think the issue is that they often rationalize their poverty instead of merely ignoring their role in creating it.

    Regarding the priorities of those on a limited income, I can't say that I entirely blame them. Life is short and finite. You do not know how long you will live. While saving for old age and deferring consumption is generally reasonable, for some it is not. If you reasonably expect to die young (or plan on dying young), there's not much point in saving and preparing for old age. And likewise with wealth: If you don't expect to be significantly wealthy (or able to enjoy your wealth) when you get older, you may as well flaunt it now. and assuming that wealth markers are used as status wars, the best time to act wealthy is during the prime of your life when you are in a position to take full advantage of it.

    This is not to excuse poverty but to explain it. Some people simply do not care if they end up poor; they would rather have something else. As such, there is no cure for poverty, save for changing the minds and habits of poor people. Ironically, money cannot fix their problem.

    Nice handle, by the way.


  3. n Chinese Spring and Autumn period, there lived a man called Cao Shang in the state Song. One year, he was sent by the king of Song on a mission to Qin. On setting off, he was alloted several carriages to go with him.

    When he arrived in Qin, the king of Qin liked him very much and thus gave him another hundred carriages. After he returned to Song, he was so happy that he showed off his experience everywhere. One day. he met Zhuang Zi and said to him:" To dwell in a mean village and live a poor life - that is what I should find it difficult to do. But as soon as I pleased the Lord of a numberless carriages, to get a reward of a hundred carriages - that is what I am good at."

    Zhuang Zi replied: "When the king of Qin is ill, the doctor whom he calls to open an ulcer or squeeze a boil receives a carriage; and the one who licks his piles receives five. The lower the service, the more are the carriages given. Sir, You must have licked the king's piles? Otherwise, why did you get so many carriages? Go away!'
    Writer Comment:

    This story is from Lie Yu Kou, a article of Zhuang Zi. The reason that Zhuang Zi said something so ironic was not that he was jealous of Cao Shang but that he tried to illustrate a point that the more profit someone obtain for himself, the more low tricks he may have to use.


    There are indeed many poor people who are lazy.

    There are also many rich people who are white-collar criminals with zero morality.

    Given the choice of obeying the law and staying poor or cheating to get rich, some people choose poverty because they are too honest!

  4. @postgygaxian- at the end of the day, though, those who remain in poverty because they stick to their morals have chosen to do so.