July 29, 2007
Humanitarians Do Not Like Slackers Either

Christina Fong at Carnegie Mellon University finds that people who have stronger humanitarian impulses are just as reluctant to donate to the lazy poor as are those who score lower on humanitarianism.

The study by Christina Fong, a research scientist in the Department of Social and Decision Sciences at Carnegie Mellon, supports previous findings that people are more likely to give money to the poor when they believe that poverty is a result of misfortune rather than laziness. What's surprising is that this effect is largest among people who claim to have more humanitarian or egalitarian beliefs. In fact, humanitarians give no more than others when recipients are deemed to be poor because of laziness.

Nobody likes slackers (except for mutual protection slacker leagues I have run into in work places). So why do opinions about the welfare state vary? I can think of a few reasons:

  • People differ in their judgments on whether most poor people are poor due to laziness or factors not under their control.
  • People differ in how much empathy they feel for perceived suffering of others. When I say "empathy" read that as "pain". Attempts to help others are, to some extent, an attempt to relieve the pain one feels at the sight of their suffering.
  • Not everyone will look at the same living conditions and agree on which circumstances constitute actual suffering.
  • People differ in how much moral hazard (in terms of less responsible behavior on the part of those helped) they think comes from helping others. The risk of reducing incentives to avoid and emerge from poverty cause many to see some degree of suffering as necessary to motivate both actual and potential poor people. Judgments differ both on how much such motivation is necessary and about which conditions constitute enough motivation to avoid the moral hazard side effects that come from helping poor people.
  • Some see helping others as beneficial also as a universally needed expression of love.

A welfare state can only work well if the overwhelming majority feel strongly motivated to work and to avoid risks. Otherwise the accumulating moral hazard side effects become an unfair burden on those who are more productive and social pathologies grow in frequency. More from this study's press release:

Fong conducted an experiment in which subjects were given $10 and asked to decide how much, if any, to give to a real-life welfare recipient. A few days prior to the experiment, participants completed surveys about their values and beliefs, including beliefs about whether lack of effort or bad luck cause poverty. The survey also included questions designed to measure whether participants considered themselves to be humanitarians.

During the experiment, donors were randomly matched with three different welfare recipients with varying work histories and desires for full-time work. This information, combined with the participants' individual beliefs about the causes of poverty, had a major impact on giving. People who believed that their recipient was poor because of bad luck gave six and a half times as much as people who believed that their recipient was poor because of laziness.

Those who scored high on the humanitarian measure gave more money to recipients judged to be victims of bad luck than those who scored low - but the two groups made the same offers to welfare recipients judged to be lazy. Fong terms this desire to help people on the condition that they appear to deserve it "empathetic responsiveness."

Will advances in scientific understanding of human brains cause people to become more or less supportive of the welfare state? I see several factors to consider in attempting to answer this question:

  • We will be able to identify health impairments much more accurately. Got chronic fatigue syndrome? Eventually we'll have much better ways to ascertain that a person really does have CFS or chronic pain or some other claimed ailment or injury.
  • Intellectual abilities will be easier to measure. Is a person really too dumb to be productive enough to earn a decent wage? Does someone have some other mental impairment? We will know.
  • People with organically caused motivational problems will be easier to separate out from those who just want to be parasites.
  • Under which environmental conditions do people with a given type of mental limitation or disability cease to be able to cope and economically support themselves?
  • Will we be able to predict from genetic profiles who will produce children who can't cope with modern society?

But the use of more accurate scientific knowledge does not lead automatically to correct answers. Take, for example, obsessive compulsive and addictive behaviors. Even if we can know that a particular person feels a huge compulsion to gamble that does not mean we should necessarily subsidize them. The size of the compulsion might even argue for forcing them to endure greater suffering so that the size of the pain becomes large enough to outweigh the urge to gamble.

We aren't just going to gain greater knowledge of how the brain works and why people act the way they do. Suppose we can discover why, say, some people have behavioral problems that get them fired from jobs or prevent them from looking for work. Then suppose scientists come up with effective treatments to change that group of mentally dysfunctional people to make them capable of supporting themselves. Once those treatments become available would you be willing to tell some group of welfare recipients that they can get treatments (e.g. neural stem cells or neural gene therapy) for their conditions at taxpayer expense but can't get welfare payments any more?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 July 29 07:57 PM  Brain Economics

Gerald Hib bs said at July 29, 2007 10:24 PM:

It is a difficult problem because the people with the most problems have their genetics pushing them off a cliff. But the modern welfare system makes the problem worse because so far it looks like predisposition rather than pure causation for most issues. But a predisposition for laziness combined with an easy opportunity to stay lazy makes it almost a certainty.

Personally I'm much more compassionate now that we have more and more info but I still am very glad we reformed welfare. As to the future it is more complex because it looks very possible we are going to be bringing in tens of millions more people with low education, and possibly low IQs, to be net users of the tax base. This stimulus may cause the public to want to become much more harsh especially when it looks like SS and Medicare are headed toward the point of no return.

Frankly I see this all as a huge mess until we get to the point where we can treat these genetic problems at the source and build true equality into people genetically.

"Intellectual abilities will be easier to measure. Is a person really too dumb to be productive enough to earn a decent wage? Does someone have some other mental impairment? We will know."

Really? Isn't there, say, some small tiny miniscule chance that political correctness might stand in the way? That is another wildcard in all of this. As it is research in these areas is severely curtailed and any discussions of the results devolves into charges of racism. I don't see that getting any better in the future. We just have to wait it out until it is no longer an issue.

"Once those treatments become available would you be willing to tell some group of welfare recipients that they can get treatments (e.g. neural stem cells or neural gene therapy) for their conditions at taxpayer expense but can't get welfare payments any more?"

I certainly would but just consider how this will come off, "Hey, we aren't going to give you food any more. Come with these guys in the white coats, they are here to help!" When you have large segments of the population deeply involved in a wild assortment of conspiracy theories -- including accusations of attempted genocide (see origins of AIDS) -- it is going to be difficult to sell that.

Jody said at July 30, 2007 5:51 AM:

I'll add the hardcore libertarian reason for variations in opinions of the welfare state (which is different from charity - I like charity, I hate the welfare state):

People differ in their willingness to confiscate others' resources to further their own ends.

Or recast as a theological argument:

People differ in their assessments of how much coercion can be applied to virtue and have it remain virtue.

Julian Morrison said at July 31, 2007 8:42 AM:

As a libertarian I have no fondness for the welfare state. I'd be happily compassionate to people who were down on their luck, but it's frustratingly hard to tell them from scroungers. There are beggars I see in my town again and again, going around with half a dozen sob stories, each believable at first. As a result I no longer even consider answering a beg for money. I consider those professional beggars basically to be a variety of con trickster - they ought to be jailed.

Nancy Lebovitz said at August 6, 2007 3:50 AM:

Also, people disagree about the costs of distinguishing between lazy and non-lazy poor. If you believe either that it's very expensive for the giving organization to distinguish and for the poor to pass tests proving that they're not slacking or that it's much worse to deny help to the non-lazy poor than to give help to the lazy, then you'll favor a simple income test.

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