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October 25, 2012



"What looks like a reluctance to work might instead be practicing one's skills in preparation for high earnings later. If the state had forced benefit claimants to work in the early 90s, we might not have had Oasis or the Harry Potter novels, and the tax revenue they generated"

or in the 1980s, the Stone Roses, whose lead singer Ian Brown made exactly this point in an interview with the Melody Maker, predicting that the policy of making unemployment benefit less generous would have long-term consequences for music. I give you...James Blunt, and point you in the general direction of Peter Lilley.


"The government doesn't have the knowhow to distinguish well between the deserving and undeserving poor."

Doesn't really matter though, does it? Having a loose definition of 'deserving' is a useful feature, insofar as libertarianism is an excuse to persecute people you don't much like while pretending you've got the moral high-ground.


#2 seems weak. From Mr. Brown's point of view, of course it makes sense, but surely to get farther than anecdotal, we would want to know how many other aspiring musicians were getting unemployment benefits at the same time.

In any case, if Harry Potter hadn't been written, most likely the money would have gone for other things. So maybe more tax revenue was collected because being all in one pot it had a higher tax rate applied, but it wasn't money that wouldn't otherwise have been taxed. We could even go farther and wonder whether the blockbuster success of Harry Potter in fact put more novelists out of work because their books were ignored.


Great piece. Another point is : the only fact that Murray to question this means that you pretend to be able to judge who deserves what.

And this, i think is evil. No one can pretend to know everything about the others. Thuis, no one can pretend to know what values other create - and either they deserve something or not.

This is actually the very principle of relativity to accept that what the others deserve might not be visible from our own perspective. But it doesn't mean their merit doesn't exist.



So Libertarians resent the way public funds are spent? Wow! Hardly a unique or novel political philosophy is it? It is simply the politics of envy repackaged in some seemingly sexy wrapper, called Libertarianism.

True Libertarianism seeks to promote individual self-determination and freedom, not the property rights of the haves against the have-nots, which is how Nozick and Twitter Libertarians have made it.

Libertarianism is compatible with a strong and universal welfare state, a state that promotes individual self-determination by making choices available to all.

Libertarianism is about personal life choices, such as the right to die when one chooses, the right to choose one's (adult) sexual partner, the right of free thought, opinion, and expression, a right to eschew military service etc, without state interference or compulsion. It has nothing to do the false idea so frequently promoted that it is about the size of the state,

The state can be as large and as active in the economic sphere as people choose under Libertarianism. Libertarianism only requires the state to be beneficent and permissive so that individuals can self-determine.

Nothing in Nozick's writing suggests that an individual's self determination is necessarily impaired by tax or by the existence of a large state. Nozick's talk of self-ownership and the concept of Self as property is meaningless and deceptive. Such an approach provides a false bridge from the private mental world of Self in to the economic sphere. From that point onwards, a life that is nasty, brutal and short for many is assured.


Well obviously Rothbard is talking about principles here, and the idea that there are some people you shouldn't provide welfare to, rather than suggesting that it is a good idea for the state to distinguish them.

The main reason for not supporting the lazy is that they'll just run around breeding, and pretty soon you'll find yourself in an 'Idiocracy' type situation, in which people willing to work have been bred out of the population. It's pretty much already happened across large swathes of Northen England, I'm afraid.

Personally, a world without Harry Potter and the Stone Roses and Oasis sounds like a vast improvement.


Work is not a virtue, and laziness not a quality. And trying to discriminate the poor against such parameters is plain nonsense.

Most of the poor are just not adapted to the requirements of the economic life, not only from the working side, but also from the consuming side. They are weak in one way or another: physically, mentally, intellectually or emotionally (which could be the very reason why some of them become great artists).
So, when the deserving rich despises the lazy poor, that's just another version of the strong abusing the weak, while claiming to be entitled to do so.


Interesting view, Zorblog, although I am not sure about the word 'weak' - human, more like - unless you mean weak from the perspective of those people who get away with the same weaknesses because they are in jobs that disguise these 'deficiencies'. Politicians requires a degree of narcissism, teachers a lack of empathy, bureaucrats the intellectual ability to ask why things are done a particular way, etc.
Sometimes, though, people are out of work because there are not enough jobs to go round.


Seems to me that Libertarianism is a rich man's ideology.
Luckily I'm a rich man, so I'm all in favour.


This v good post gives me more reassurance for my view that most modern libertarians (Bryan Caplan excepted) tend to use their political philosophy as a cover/ a Trojan horse for some distinctly illiberal views. One truism of human nature: no one wants to give up power (without responsibility) when it's available to them. Libertarian politicians (UKIP c'mon down) are guilty of this as much as the next man.


@Steve, laziness is not congenital, so the idea that we can breed a willingness to work out of (or in to) the population is nonsense. Given that the working-age population of Northern England will on average be around 40, your amateur anthropology assumes that the we started breeding the workshy around 1970, a time of full employment.

Paradoxically, if laziness were a congenital defect, this would be a strong argument for not trying to isolate the "undeserving". After all, if you were born lazy, you have little say in the matter, just as if you were born blind. See this piece by Karl Smith for a fuller discussion of the implications: http://modeledbehavior.com/2012/02/07/the-deserving-poor/

What the mouldering corpse of Murray Rothbard and others fail to acknowledge is that laziness is not a persistent quality. I can be lazy before lunch and hard-working afterwards. Their simplistic dichotomy also implies that it (or more precisely, "they") can be easily identified, but when pressed, this reduces to a single binary choice: will you take a job at a shit wage?

john b

In any case, if Harry Potter hadn't been written, most likely the money would have gone for other things

...but most Harry Potter books and cinema tickets were sold outside the UK, while most of the profit from the books came to the UK (as Rowling's income and as Bloomsbury's profits). Admittedly the profits for the films went to Warner in the US, but making them involved a billion quid of spending in the UK by Warner that would likely otherwise have been spent in Hollywood or on cheaper locations. Same with Oasis.


Um, er... there's nothing surprising in a libertarian saying something like that. Libertarianism is the pseudo-philosophy of privileged dudes sitting around whining about taxes. There's nothing more to it, although the pot stuff and anti-war stuff makes it entertaining to hear bad reasons to support good policy.

So libertarians look down their noses at people who aren't making as much money as they are? What. A. Surprise.

Libertarianism is like Calvinball. The tenets change to fit the circumstance, the only thing that holds is "less taxes."

Is There a Cure for Cancer

Grapes contain the compound proanthocyanidins which reduces the estrogen production and protects the people from cancer.


Steve: 'The main reason for not supporting the lazy is that they'll just run around breeding, and pretty soon you'll find yourself in an 'Idiocracy' type situation, in which people willing to work have been bred out of the population. It's pretty much already happened across large swathes of Northen England, I'm afraid.' And for the intellectually lazy and genuinely stupid, there's always eugenics to fall back on.


Undeserving poor is a new concept because until recently society let those who would not help themselves to their own devices, letting them run at muggers and thieves until the law removed them from the gene pool.

Is it not easier to create government industries churning out cheap consumer goods like mops and buckets where we re-import jobs for the lazy and those not gifted with anything above a four letter vocabulary and the ability to spit in the street as they prowl with their MacDonalds and Stella?

People should never accept unemployment as a choice, it is a temporary state which the state has now made into a lifestyle choice. Benefits should be a minimal amount to keep you alive not to support drinking/smoking/sky TV etc.

If we want people to work rather than commit crime, lets make crime the unattractive option, hard labour smashing rocks. Mindless, pointless punishments. 3 hours of learning in the morning, 4 hours of rock smashing in the evening.

Exactly how much tax have Oasis and Rowling actually paid to the UK government? Has their huge success stifled 10 other musicians and authors because of the obsession with those two.

If those acts were employed and had higher satisfaction with their lives maybe they would have still created their art but not in the timeframes reviewed.

I don't recall unemployment being a major issue for Mozart or Beethoven creating their music, or Shakespeare writing his plays.

The link between creativity and unemployment is a new one, nothing creative was ever done by those in employment?



And there we are with the 'gene pool' stuff again. It's always about the breeding, isn't it? Another phrase to look out for is 'swinging from the teat'.

I mean, I'm *sure* libertarians don't literally think poor people are farm animals, not *literally*. It's just they seem to think poor people are just like farm animals *in practice*.


another explanation might be the male physche



Undeserving poor as a new concept? Maybe in the 1500s... But even that seems to be pushing it.
Back then there was huge moral panic over the hordes of undeserving poor exploiting the system. However in the hundreds of years since then we have found that all it does is drive up crime and cost the state more.
It seems that in the last 30 years those lessons have been forgotten.

Noni Mausa

A point not made often enough is that "finding a job" isn't like "hunting a deer" or "planting a garden."

Finding a job actually consists of persuading an entity (another person or a corporation) to give you money in exchange for some effort on your part. There are things you can do to increase your chances, but in the end it isn't your decision. If the effort you have to offer is of no interest to such an entity, you're out of luck.

In addition, if the only entities who are hiring have decided to offer their employees a wage less than what they need to survive, or (nearly as bad,) a wage less than the lifetime needs of their workers (which is roughly 2x the cost of immediate needs) then to work for them is to effectively sell your "stock", your effort, below cost.

No business which is forced to sell below cost can survive, so why would anyone expect people to do so?

When charities and governments step in to make up the gap, through food banks and other supports, this is a subsidy to business. Not a metaphor, a real subsidy.




I wasn't aware that there was a system for the undeserving poor to exploit in the 1500s. I believe the notion of the "undeserving poor" came into being in the Victorian period, not the 1500s.

In the Victoria era and the first part of the 20th century the practice of "baby farming" resulted in the frequent murder of unwanted babies by impoverished women. Infanticide in the UK has reduced massively since then, coincidentally with the inception of the modern welfare state.

So, I feel you are being a tad hard on the welfare state when you say that "all it does is drive up crime and cost the state more"

Perhaps the lessons of the past have not been forgotten in the last 30 years?


@Anonymous (03:22pm), the first poor law in England was passed in 1551, requiring parishes to build workhouses. This was introduced due to the massive increase in poverty occasioned by the abolition of the monasteries, which had provided most poor relief up to then.

The workhouses provided basic relief to the "deserving" poor in return for work. The "undeserving" were classified as vagabonds, whom it was legal to assault. The Vagabond Act of 1597 finbally abolished the death penalty for vagrancy.

The Poor Relief ACt of 1601 further refined the classification of the poor and their treatment: the impotent poor (old, lame or blind) were to be cared for in almshouses; the able-bodied poor (i.e. deserving) were sent to workhouses; and the idle poor and vagrants were sent to houses of correction (a cross between a workhouse and a prison).

PS: I think Iralie meant that the moral panic over the undeserving poor drives up crime and costs, not that the welfare state does.


Anonymous: there absolutely was poor relief in Britain from fairly early on. It was originally done at the parish level; as time went on, various Poor Laws systematized parish efforts. And, of course, the distinction between the deserving and the undeserving was key, and was perennially contested. It was related to the debate about indoor vs. outdoor relief ('outdoor' being relief given to people who stay in their homes, indoor relief being relief given in institutions like workhouses, orphanages, etc.) Outdoor relief was thought to be too cushy and a temptation to freeloading; indoor relief was often more expensive and, despite the efforts of various reformers, not good at improving the moral fiber and/or employability of the poor.

dilbert dogbert

Late to the party but what the hell I am always late.
Question: Did Rothbard propose a final solution the the problem of the poor. I know this will shut down the comments so maybe I am doing gods work?


@Iralie; @FromAtoE; @hilzoy

Thanks. I stand corrected.


These right wingers seem to have no problem with the welfare that is given to the big corporations and the wealthy who have no need for it.

They are all about eliminating welfare for those who need it, but think nothing about giving it to those who need it the least.

ezra abrams

Is Dr Rothbard G-D, that he has the right to make such a determination ?
In the Jewish tradition, the highest form of charity is anonymous charity that can't be repaid (this is why helping to fill in the grave is a great mitzvah; the recipient, the dead one, cant repay the favor).
Charity is a virtue, and one shouldn't be so mean and nasty and full of oneself to arrogate to oneself the right to make the determination of who is, or isn't , worthy.


"Charity is a virtue, and one shouldn't be so mean and nasty and full of oneself to arrogate to oneself the right to make the determination of who is, or isn't , worthy."

But we all do. Every one of us receives more opportunities to be charitable than we can fulfill - we make that determination all the time. Maybe you gave to cancer research, but not the heart disease people. The soup kitchen, but not the housing for released prisoners. Injured veterans, but not body armor for the police. Which group do you volunteer your time with - there aren't enough hours to do everything. Each one of us makes decisions on where our finite means will be best employed, and this inevitably includes our assessment of the relative worth of the causes.

How is judging the "deserving" or "undeserving" poor any different?

gastro george

The state is there to protect the poor from our charitable choices.

Wonks Anonymous

FromArseToElbow, are there any studies on the heritability of laziness?

Jay Z

If laziness was a fatal flaw, it would have been bred out long ago. The industrious can tend to stupid behavior like being the first volunteers for bad wars or climbing Mount Everest.

The lazy are motivated to find the most efficient way to end their work, because they hate work. The industrious may love work so much that they can't see the signals that their particular work is unproductive.

Noni Mausa

@Wonks Anonymous Re:laziness. I am not even sure we know if there is such a thing. Sounds like a dumb question, but how would you define "laziness" and distinguish it from other causes of non-performance?

What other causes? Well, we know that low level prenatal and postnatal poisoning, by lead or by alcohol for instance, degrade people's ability to persist in a task.

Depression and its commoner, less drastic cousin dysthymia interfere with motivation and slash available energy levels. They interfere with memory also.

Learned helplessness is another possibility. When a person or animal tries and fails to succeed often enough, they become unable to try again, even if conditions change so that success becomes possible. This isn't a choice, it's chemical in nature.

Finally, an intelligent person might assess the situation and perceive that working hard and persisting in that situation will not benefit him, but only benefit the others who have constructed that situation. That takes us into the area of covert resistance, "...more concerned with maintenance than with triggering drastic change. Subjects thus utilize subtle tactics coherent with their disagreement while avoiding becoming
targets of retribution: foot dragging, buying time, playing stupid, all sheltered behind the smoke screen of overt compliance."

Outside of these examples, is there such a thing as true laziness? I'm not sure, I'll let you discuss it while I go have a nap.



@WonksAnon, the short answer is no. This is because laziness is neither persistent nor a measurable condition like (for instance) blindness. Laziness is subjective and conditional. A 19th century miner would consider an 8-hour day in a an air-con'ed office to be the epitome of laziness.

Laziness is not a congential attribute but a state, the exact nature of which is vague, to which we are all subject at times. It is no more hereditable than disappointment or elation. The right-wing "lazy people" trope is based on the idea that people can be categorised and explained (and thus dismissed) by virtue of a particular expression of personality or a circumstantial condition. It's the classic idea of the "character flaw".

As Jane Austen subtly revealed, a lack of money is the ultimate character flaw.

Nick Rowe

Chris: Mr Doolittle (Eliza's father) also spoke on behalf of the undeserving poor.



At least on your Point (1), that looks like an argument for taking welfare out of the hands of the state and putting it into those of churches and private charities, which, as in the good old Victorian days, would have lots of concerned, busybody local members who could frequently visit and closely monitor the poor in their own neighbourhoods.


@nb, the point (i.e. #1) Chris is making applies as much to churches and private charities as it does to the state. It's a people thing. It applies to any bunch of do-gooders who would presume to tell us how to behave. Fundamentally, we are shit at seperating goats from sheep.


Pretty good post.

"Libertarianism is the pseudo-philosophy of privileged dudes sitting around whining about taxes. There's nothing more to it "

Alex, this is satire, is it? I not quite a libertarian, and I shouldn't have taken the time, but your internet-only hybrid of confidence and obliviousness is rarely expressed as cleanly in consecutive sentences.

"So libertarians look down their noses at people who aren't making as much money as they are? What. A. Surprise."

No, of course not. This is evidence that you're unfamiliar with both the relevant intellectual history and the personal tendencies of modern libertarians. I would ask "Why ridicule people before learning about them?", but to ask is to answer.

Brandon Berg

Point #1 suggests that government ought not be in the charity business, if it's not capable of administering it efficiently.

That said, the issue of people who just don't feel like working is a sideshow. The real issue is moral hazard. When we commit to bailing out people who get themselves into situations where they can't support themselves and their dependents properly despite their best efforts, then people become more cavalier about getting into such situations, and ultimately we end up with subcultures where this is, if not the norm, then at least borderline respectable.


Perhaps that Rothbard quote was taken out of context. In isolation, it makes no sense -- no libertarian sense, anyway.

Mr. Dillow comes close in his point 1 (gov lacks info) and in point 6 (legislating morality), but still misses the essence of the libertarian objection. Even if Gov could identify Deserving Poor (ignoring how subjective that might be), it is still both wrong and counterproductive to use violence to collect goodies for them. Libertarian goverment thus has no need to distinguish deserving from undeserving, since it won't be giving goodies to either.

The rest of Dillow's points are pretty lame. Number 5 (reduce competition for jobs) is particularly Keynesian (and by "Keynesian", I mean limp-brained). I note that we can reduce competition for jobs by breaking all the windows, too.


"3.The lazy are a minority of the unemployed. The ONS says (Excel file) that only 16.3% of the unemployed have high life satisfaction (9-10 on a 0-10 scale) whilst 45% have low satisfaction (0-6). The equivalent figures for the employed are 24.4% and 20% respectively. With the lazy in a minority, it's harder, and so more expensive, for the state to identify them."

What on earth is this? Do you actually believe laziness leads to high satisfaction? Laziness is an addiction to short term pleasure. It creates DISSATISFACTION in the long run.

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