Friday, November 02, 2012

Strictly Speaking, It’s Not Blaming the Victims for Our Economic Malaise, But Rather the Blaming of Those Who Support Public Policies that Help the Poor & Unemployed!

I admit to wondering if some arguments warrant any attention whatsoever, and not only because they emanate from the lofty perches of economics professors at the University of Chicago: “Casey Mulligan…claims that the continued weakness of employment in the US is due to policies introduced in 2008 and 2009, which ‘greatly enhanced the help given to the poor and unemployed — from expansion of food-stamp eligibility to enlargement of food-stamp benefits to payment of unemployment bonuses — sharply eroding (and, in some cases, fully eliminating) the incentives for workers to seek and retain jobs, and for employers to create jobs or avoid layoffs.’” This is actually a variation on an old and tired argument which rests on eminently arguable assumptions and silly but stubbornly persistent beliefs about human nature and moral psychology in the context of alleged “economic efficiency” (I happen to believe these are historically associated with the Christian doctrine of ‘original sin’), well-illustrated by an infamous proposition from Charles Murray’s influential book, Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980 (1984): “People are not inherently hard working or moral. In the absence of countervailing influences, people will avoid work and be amoral”(146).* Please see John Quiggin’s post at Crooked Timber.

* For a characteristically lucid discussion, see Robert E. Goodin’s chapter on “Efficiency” in his Reasons for Welfare: The Political Theory of the Welfare State (1988): 229-256. See too the section by Goodin, “The Morality of Incentives and Deterrence,” in David Schmidtz and Robert E. Goodin, Social Welfare and Individual Responsibility: For and Against (1998): 172-189. As to the pernicious influence of at least one strain of Christian moral psychology—that is, one of Puritan provenance—see “The new medicine for poverty,” in R.H. Tawney’s classic but somewhat neglected study (at least alongside Weber's better known The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism) Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926): 253-273.

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