One important hallmark of right-wing thinking is the emphasis on the value of individual responsibility: people should take their lives into their own hands, try to be independent and self-sufficient and make it on their own. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but I part ways with many on the right when they assume that the moral importance of responsibility and self-reliance implies that those who don’t make it on their own have somehow failed to be responsible.
Well, some of those probably have indeed failed to be responsible, but why would we think this is true in all or even most cases? Many people who really try hard to be responsible and to behave rationally still get their legs cut off from under them (there are many causes of poverty after all). Others are irresponsible and still make it (or get bailed out when things go wrong). The word “bank” comes to mind.
It’s not because responsibility is a generally important value and a “good thing” that a lack of it always leads to bad outcomes such as poverty (one bad outcome that does always follow from lack of responsibility is obviously irresponsibility, but that’s tautological).
However, let’s assume, arguendo, that many on the right are correct in their belief that bad things such as poverty are almost always the product of irresponsible and self-destructive behavior. The idea of desert is important here: if poverty is a form of self-destruction resulting from irresponsible actions, then poor people deserve their poverty and they should, somewhat confusingly, be called “the undeserving poor” (“deserving poor” would perhaps be a better name). The flip side is the idea that people with good lives have not failed to act responsibly. And because they have been responsible they deserve their wealth and wellbeing and should not be forced by way of taxation to help those who have not been responsible.
Some on the right do indeed believe that poor people should not be assisted, for 3 reasons:
- poverty is what they chose when they acted irresponsibly, and hence it is what they deserve
- helping them would send the wrong signal and would undermine the value of individual responsibility
- helping them would mean taking funds away from those who acted responsibly and whi deserve the proceeds of their responsible actions.
Poor people should therefore try to make it back on their own. Assistance in the form of charity for example is allowed, of course, but it can’t be enforced without undermining responsibility, both among the beneficiaries of enforced assistance and among those who are forced to give (the latter may well conclude that self-reliance is futile if the proceeds are taxed away).
It’s true that this is not the standard right-wing view. Some conservatives or libertarians make room for enforced assistance, on the condition that this assistance promotes responsibility and that poor people genuinely try to be responsible while and after they are assisted. Assistance would then be withdrawn in case of continued irresponsibility, and also when it becomes clear that assistance produces dependence and a lack of self-reliance.
While I share the enthusiasm for values such as responsibility, desert, self-reliance, independence and conditional assistance, I also see some problems.
Why would the arrow of causation only go from responsibility to success and from irresponsibility to failure? Might not the reverse also occur? I believe it’s at least possible that poverty and failure lead to irresponsible and self-destructive behavior, and that a life of riches, especially during childhood, fosters responsibility and other virtues. For example, it has been shown that the stress of poverty in early life as well as later in life can lead to misjudgments and irrational behavior. In addition, a life of poverty can destroy people’s aspirations, which in turn may make them decide that they “don’t give a fuck”. From a distance, this may look like irresponsible and self-destructive behavior, but it can be explained as the consequence of poverty rather than the cause. Similarly, the bee sting theory of poverty argues that people in poverty just give up after a series of calamities or misfortunes.
Some apparently self-destructive, irrational and poverty-inducing or poverty-perpetuating behavior may be a price that poor people are willing to pay for other goods. For example, the widespread use of Qat in countries such as Yemen causes all sorts of problems for productive and rational behavior. And yet, people who refuse to take it risk social ostracism. The need for social inclusion and acceptance then outweighs the material cost for many users. Something similar can be said of those poor people who spend a lot of money on celebrations and festivals while their calorie intake is below standard.
What looks like self-destruction may in fact be an elaborate and tragic strategy for social survival. Does this mean that people who are willing to pay the price of poverty should not be assisted, given that they are willing? No. They are only willing because the better alternative – both social inclusion and lack of poverty – is not available to them.
Until now, I’ve granted the right wing starting point that many poor people act irresponsibly – strategically or not – and that their behavior causes their poverty. But what if all this is just a visual illusion? Is it not possible that the poor are just as responsible or irresponsible as the rich, but that they have a much smaller margin of error? Some forms of behavior that have little or no consequences for wealthy people, may lead to worse outcomes for poor people or for people on the edge of poverty. Poor people perhaps only look more irresponsible.
That last point is important. The only way of detecting responsible or irresponsible behavior is to look at the consequences of it – we can’t detect people’s motivations. But this means that we can be wrong: consequences that look like they are the product of lack of responsibility may be something else. We see behavior that has self-destructive consequences for the actor, but we may be dealing with a person who is not really irresponsible but simply out of luck, mistaken or misguided, or someone with a small margin of error.
So our assessment of responsibility is necessarily an approximation which can sometimes be totally wrong. Any being wrong in our assessment whether or not to help people may have terrible consequences. Furthermore, this assessment is not only difficult and often mistaken; it’s also invasive. Ideally, in order to detect irresponsible poor people – and treat them like this – we would have to monitor their lifestyles and long term attitudes over long periods of time. Only then can we minimize the risk of error. But the result would be dictatorship. I’m sure right-wing thinkers don’t really want to go there. Hence, they should think twice before making desert and responsibility the cornerstone of their worldview.
Other posts in this series are here.