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Poverty and Liberal Equality September 16, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Political Philosophy.

If there is anything that contemporary liberals agree about, it is that we ought to do more to fight poverty. In the richest country in the world, it is a scandal that more than one person in ten falls below the poverty line (even after food stamps, welfare, etc. is included in their income.) Despite massive increases in our nation’s wealth (measured by gains in Gross Domestic Product) over the past 40 years, the percentage of persons living in poverty has not changed much.

Liberals want to solve the problem of poverty by providing the poor with the same opportunities that middle class folks have through basic income support, public education, wider access to health care and child care, etc .

Conservatives, of course, argue that there is little we can do about poverty. If a person is poor, it is her fault for not working hard enough, or not making good decisions about getting an education or saving money. The best we can do is let the free market punish people for their bad decisions and, if they remain poor, so be it.

What both liberals and conservatives agree on is that the poor are irrational when they don’t take advantage of their opportunities. The poor tend to waste their money, fail to develop habits necessary to participate in the work place, drop out of school, or have too many children at too young an age.

Liberals and conservatives disagree about what explains the irrationality–conservatives believe the best explanation is individual moral weakness. Liberals believe it is lack of opportunity, a history of racism or some other form of discrimination that undermines self-respect, structural problems in the economy, etc.

Philosopher Charles Karelis argues they are both wrong about why the poor fail to make use of their opportunities. He argues that the poor are perfectly rational in declining to take advantage of opportunities, up to a point. I think he is right about this and his view indicates some new directions for liberal thinking on this issue.

Karelis’s recent article is behind a subscription wall. This article in the Washington Post provides a cursory explanation of his view.

The following thought experiment (similar to the one used by Karelis) illustrates the basic idea. Suppose you have to travel 10 miles to the market to get food for your family, you have no transportation available, and only 5 dollars in your pocket. Suppose someone offers to take you the first mile for 1 dollar. Karelis argues that it is irrational for you to accept the ride. The cost is too great given the fact that you have no guarantee that you can get a ride the rest of the way (and back) or have money to buy groceries when you get there. Only if someone offers you a ride most of the way to the market, leaving you with enough money to purchase groceries, is it rational to accept the ride.

The poor are in a similar situation. We give them welfare, some minimal job training, emergency health care, or access to student loans but none of this gets them close to escaping poverty given the obstacles they confront. Thus, they are not irrational when they spend their meagre income on booze or drugs, have children when they are 17, or drop out of school. The cost of putting off short-term pleasure for long term gains is too great when the long term gains are so distant and unlikely that they don’t appear to be live options.

The implication for liberalism is that prosperous liberals should not view the poor as being “just like us”–disposed to reason in the same way we do when presented with opportunities. When you have enough resources–good parents, good genes, a good education–the American Dream looks achievable and the path to it well trodden and well marked. But if one is not so fortunate, the light at the end of the tunnel really is more than likely an on-coming train. Its best to stay clear of the tunnel altogether. Giving the poor the same opportunities the rest of us have will not suffice–the ideal of equality is too thin to give us a  handle on this problem.

If we are going to do anything about poverty it will require more than a few liberal carrots and a big conservative stick. We might have to actually care about their fate (instead of engaging in a lot of cheap moralizing) and do whatever it takes to make our society genuinely inclusive.

Karelis has a book out on the subject. Its certainly on my reading list.

A hat tip to Nina for sending me the Washington Post article.



1. Lynne Ellis - October 18, 2012

That makes such a lot of sense when thought through in that way.

2. http://tinyurl.com/tomfmarks43187 - January 14, 2013

The following blog post, “Poverty and Liberal Equality | Philosophy On The Mesa” demonstrates that you actually comprehend just what
exactly u are communicating about! I really completely approve.
With thanks ,Chara

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