14
Dec
11

“It’s easy, all you need to do is…”

Giving high-handed advice to the poor is one of the favourite hobbies of the affluent, whether we’re talking about nations (*cough*Germany*cough*) or individuals.  This advice usually boils down to “start behaving like you value the things I value”, which should immediately trigger the Robin Hanson part of our brains and suggest that advice-giving is more about mood affiliation than actual instruction.  Funny thing, it turns out that not everyone has complacent middle-class values.

In any case, my economics RSS feed has produced three astoundingly good rants on the subject of late.  Excerpting them does them far too little credit; you should really click through and RTWT:

Poor people are people who make decisions.  They are not a combination of circumstances that can be tweaked to make them stop acting like poor people.   They like babies and sleeping in for the same reasons you do.  And they are generally asked to give up those things in return for much less reward than the middle class people who cluck at them for their bad decisions.  (The poor and near poor face some of the highest marginal tax rates in the country due to loss of benefits.  For some reason, the GOP has not put much of its policymaking effort into rectifying this supply-side nightmare.)

Now, of course teachers, parents and helpful people like Marks will tell me to do otherwise. Should I believe them?

Not on your life.

By their own admission they want to see me “succeed.” That is, they benefit from my gamble. Yet, they incur none of the risks. They don’t lose time with their child. They don’t risk their fertility. They don’t experience the disutility of social climbing.

Heads they win. Tails I lose.

Listening to them would be nothing short of foolish.

But when people blithely say “They’re fat because they’re lazy/greedy/insert bad character trait here”, I point out that the people making the accusation have a much easier time making “good choices”.  Their bodies are not insistently demanding food in the same way that obese bodies are, so of course it’s easier to pass up that big helping of pasta.

I’d say the same thing about people who are poor.  They could be middle class if they made a series of hard choices.   But those choices are really hard–much harder than they are for the people who are already there.  Chances are, you would also have a hard time making those choices.

Culture and institutions (or as Sartre would put it, facticity) really, really matter*.  You can’t just coerce some random society into a bunch of “prosperous” behaviours and expect it to turn into a prosperous society by sympathetic magic: you’re just cargo-culting.  (See, for example, what happened to Russia in the 1990s, or what Germany’s trying to impose upon southern Europe.)

——

* I may have just talked myself into a Deirdre McCloskey reading binge.

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2 Responses to ““It’s easy, all you need to do is…””


  1. December 16, 2011 at 20:28

    Hmm, this must be why I’ve never received any useful advice in my life ever.


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anarchocapitalist agitprop

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