Do we choose to be poor?

Those wacky libertarians, ya just gotta love 'em. I link to a couple of them from this site. I think libertarian politics are interesting because they often cut to the heart of the matter, pointing out where, rationally, government authority should end and individual responsibility should begin.

Take Jane Galt, for example. Yesterday she put up a completely rational post about what it really means to be rich. Nobody wants to admit they’re rich, she points out, because we can always hope to be richer. She suggests that, compared to, say the 1920s, there really is no poverty today:

The average middle class man of 1920 would have regarded all but the most hopelessly drug addled or mentally ill street people as wealthy beyond dreams of avarice.

Makes perfect sense. After all, even welfare moms have TVs these days, and central heating, and plumbing, and, gosh, even electric lights. We’ve practically eliminated suffering here in America, and yet somehow, people still want more.

Yessir, I bet the small-town pharmacist of 1920 would just stroll right into a bullet-ridden housing project like Cabrini Green and wish he could live there, with its televisions, and its heating. No more hauling firewood in from the back yard for him: now it’d be the luxury of convenient recreational drug delivery, day or night!

I bet he’d head on down to the south side, past the drunks on the sidewalk, past the muttering old ladies pushing their shopping carts, and simply admire the immense progress we Americans have made these past 75 years.

Galt points out that no one ever drops out of school to support their family any more. Think about it — it used to be seen as rather heroic to drop out, but now we don’t have to, thanks to Welfare. Other than the homeless, and the migrant workers, things are positively peachy for the lower income levels.

In the comments, one of the readers pointed that that 40 percent of the homeless are mentally ill. Okay, so maybe that’s a problem, but at least we don’t lobotomize them any more!

The point is (Jane doesn’t exactly say this, but some of the commenters do) that people choose the negative effects of poverty. They could live just fine on their $350 welfare checks, if only they didn’t decide to squander it on luxuries like clothing and rent. Why not go to Goodwill and buy cheap $3 pants, instead of those fancy $15 Wal-Mart jeans? You see, people who lose their jobs because they’re sick, and then lose their health coverage because they don’t have jobs, they’re just making bad choices.

I think there’s an interesting interaction with Jane’s post and this post over at Alas, a Blog. Wealthy Kalispellian Dick Dasen recruited area women to have sex with him for money, then gave them commissions to bring him new partners. He spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on this “avocation.” Apparently his influence was so great that it affected the local economy; when one of his checks bounced, its impact was felt all the way down to the local video poker hall. His marks used the money to support their crystal meth and gambling addictions.

But weren’t these women (and in some cases, girls) just choosing to be abused by Dasen? Is it right to call him a “fresh, hot, steaming pile of cowshit”? After all, he paid good money for services voluntarily rendered. Isn’t it right that they are likely going to get significant criminal punishment for their actions, while he just gets a slap on the wrist? After all, they chose to do what they were doing.

This, in a nutshell, is what I find wrong with libertarianism. When people make bad decisions, it affects all of us. When a community has been afflicted by a sexual predator, the root of the problem needs to be addressed. In impoverished neighborhoods, the best solution to a gang problem is probably not to put the entire African American population in jail, because what’s left would be a non-functional community. Health care is everyone’s problem, because the next victim could be you. The community needs to be responsible for taking care of its sick. Rather than simply forcing everyone to live with the consequences of their “decisions,” sometimes a community-wide solution is more appropriate.

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2 Responses to Do we choose to be poor?

  1. Scott says:

    Dave,

    Interesting remarks. FWIW, I did a college internship at
    a libertarian think tank. I admired these people because
    they really weren’t in for the political BS. They were
    equal-opportunity criticizers–Democrat, Republican, it didn’t
    matter so long as the politician was contrary to their
    beliefs.

    Their honesty and general earnestness was refreshing, but
    I can’t help but find them slightly naive. They really,
    really did believe in the free market, despite the fact
    that no one with any brains really thinks the free market
    is the best way to maxmize both efficiency and humanity.

    Also, as your quoting of Galt points out, they tended to be
    a little reductionistic in their thinking. It seemed as
    though many of their ideas seemed good on the surface, but
    a little probing beneath (which they didn’t do for whatever
    reason) would show them to be faulty.

    Regardless, I will also say that they put out a whole lot
    of research that I found to be 100% legit and pretty
    interesting.

  2. Anne says:

    Sigh. Thanks for writing this, Dave. Lots of my friends in college and grad school toyed with liberatarianism for all the reasons that you & Scott outline. I never could figure out a good rebuttal because, as you say, their arguments are always so “rational.” Now, I don’t trouble myself to come across them–they rankle me–but your thoughtful engagement here helps me remember that I do disagree with them and there are good reasons to articulate why.

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