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September 15, 2007


Jim Donovan

"..the poor especially are not to be condemned for being lazy, as it might be a learned childhood response.." So how does that explain the many who move out of poverty through hard work? You might try the same flawed logic on violence, drunkeness, and criminality. You do a disservice to the majority of the poor - virtuous people, living honest, decent lives.

Bob B

"the poor especially are not to be condemned for being lazy, as it might be a learned childhood response to their environment."


"Total recorded alcohol consumption in the UK is estimated to have doubled between 1960 and 2002. . . The researchers . . found steady increases in death rates in Scotland, England and Wales during the 1970s. This accelerated in the 1980s, and again from the nineties onwards. In contrast, death rates for both men and women in other European countries declined by 20% to 30% from the early 1970s. Between the periods 1987-1991, and 1997-2001, male deaths from cirrhosis in Scotland more than doubled, and in England and Wales they rose by over two-thirds."

"In 2004 there were 8,221 alcohol-related deaths in the UK, almost
double the total of 4,144 in 1991."

The ONS is also saying:

"In Scotland, the alcohol-related death rates for males and females were around double the rates for the UK as a whole in 2002-2004"

Time to charge alcoholics for medical care?

Some chance.


Jim - the point is that only a minority of the poor move out of (relative) poverty, and many of those do so for reasons other than hard work - I used natural intelligence instead.
Of course, many of the poor do work hard, but many of these do so whilst staying poor.
I certainly wasn't saying that all, or even most of the poor are lazy - just that those who are have reasons to be, possibly good ones.

john b

Sorry to reply to Bob's irrelevancies - but why the bloody hell should drinkers be charged for medical care when booze taxes are more than 4X the cost of alcohol-related illness and crime put together?

Bob B

But, John, there was so much talk about denying smokers medical care and look at the taxes smokers pay. However, rest assured, drinkers are safe enough from being charged because of the powerful brewing and distilling lobbies.

The real purpose of my post is to emphasize the often overlooked fact that much poverty is voluntary, an inconvenient fact that can be learned from the environment of the poor.

How come Britain has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in western Europe as well as the highest incidence of single-parent families, two factors which observably contribute to poverty and which are mostly avoidable? How come we have one of the lowest stay-on rates in education or training at the age of 16 among OECD countries when unskilled manual jobs are rapidly going out of fashion?

"Some 26 million adults lack maths or English skill levels expected of school-leavers. . . An estimated 5.2 million adults have worse literacy than that expected of 11 year olds, while 14.9 million have numeracy skills below this level."

"White British boys from poor families perform worse at GCSE than almost any other racial group. Official figures show that only 24% of those entitled to free school meals gained five or more good GCSEs last year, compared with 65% of the poorest Chinese boys and 48% of poor Indian and Bangladeshi boys."

The Sage King

Maybe Arsene has learned how to lose, and has built a team on that knowledge to win, and maybe the poor and those who evangelise on their behalf have not learned why they are poor, or more over just why some are richer than they are.

Who is more productive, a poor person in a poor country or a poor person in a rich country on a like for like scale?

tom s.

Someone's got to say this, so it might as well be me.

"One is that the capacity to make the most of one's ability - to work and practice hard - might itself be a natural talent. "

-- But what you do with that talent for working hard is down to you.

Unless making the most of an ability to hard work is itself a natural talent.

Bob B

"Unless making the most of an ability to hard work is itself a natural talent."

Average hours worked per employee tend to be longer in some affluent countries - like America and Britain - than in other peer group countries. What conclusions should be draw?


Fantastic! I can give way to my lazy impulses with a clear conscience. It is nothing to do with me personally, there is no "ought" about anything.

Now if I can just persuade my husband that his upbringing was different, and that housework etc is easy for him...

Laban Tall

"The secret of wealth is not plain hard work. The poorer a person is, the plainer and harder the work that they do" - P.J. O'Rourke in 'Eat The Rich'.

Bob B

But accordinf to the OECD Factbook 2007, average hours actually worked are longer in America than Britain, which therefore must mean that Americans on average are poorer than we are . . or does it?


Quite right. Lots of people work very hard but for many it doesn't get them anywhere. It works the other way too: I'm (genetically, I think) fantastically lazy, have a bad attitude to authority and have absolutely no ambition. In a meritocracy I'd be poor, but I'm not because we don't live in a meritocracy. Thank goodness.

Btw, Max Weber reckoned the Protestant Ethic was instrumental in introducing to the world the idea that hard work per se was a virtue. Hitherto, he argued, this was seen as irrational. Rightly so, in my view.

michael webster

Did Charlie "Hustle" Rose have the talent to hustle or did he have to work at running full speed to first base?


'By contrast, someone raised among richer people will see the benefits of hard work, and be more inclined to put in effort.'

What, like Harry Windsor and his uncle, Eddie, to mention two of many?


Compare with http://angrybear.blogspot.com/2007/09/separate-in-and-of-itself-can-cause.html

Isn't this a tired old argument. It seems like it is a rerun of the predetermination free-will arguments that got a lot of people killed in the 17th Century.

Surely the answer is both of the above. Yes people are massively influenced by genetics and their environment, but they can actively rise above them, especially with the correct sort of support structures. Condemnation never helps anybody, targeted programs for the disadvantaged do. We are still learning how to this, but neither blaming the victim nor forgiving the culprit are good enough by themselves.

Dan | thesamovar

I've been thinking about this for a while, because if you're right it's pretty serious. I'm interested in an alternative economic system you may well have come across called participatory economics (parecon) in which remuneration for work is proportional to effort and sacrifice rather than outcomes. One of the reasons for remuneration based on this principle is that it supposedly deals with the rewarding the genetic lottery problem, because people can control what they do, but not their talents. If you're right though, this system would just be rewarding the genetic lottery in a less straightforward way.

But I think there's a resolution of the problem, which is that although some component of the ability to work hard might be genetic, some component of it is due to choice. There's a philosophical difficulty of course because of the free will argument (everything is determined), but if you're just talking about incentive structures you can bypass that difficulty. Rewarding hard work incentivises hard work even if people are entirely determined by their genes. (Just like punishing people for crime acts as a deterrent whether or not people really have free will.) On the other hand, rewarding innate talent doesn't incentivise anything (by definition of the word innate).

In other words, reframing the question as one about incentives and behaviour rather than morality solves the problem.

Thanks for posing such an interesting puzzle.

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