It’s often said that people that cannot pay their own way should not have children. This is something I used to believe very fervently. I still do believe it, but I have come to believe it’s a lot more complicated than people make it out to be. This post is about the problematic nature of that broad statement. For the purposes of this post, I am going to rely on the following assumptions:
- If we restrict trade imports, it will lead to a decline in outsourcing and an increase in American jobs. As a result, there will be more jobs and the wages of those jobs will be higher than they currently are because the workers will not be competing with Asians willing to work for pennies on the dollar.
- If we restrict immigration (legal and illegal), it will lead to fewer candidates for each position. As a result, there will be more jobs available for actual Americans and the wages of those jobs will be higher than they currently are because the workers will not be competing with immigrants who do not have the leverage to ask for better pay.
- If we increase the minimum wage to a livable wage, it will lead to higher wages that allow more people to make a livable wage and fewer people will rely on welfare.
- If we increase the Earned Income Tax Credit, it will lead to more people making a living wage through the pay they receive from their employer and the tax breaks and credits they receive.
- Government works programs have the ability to create jobs that result in a net increase in the total number of jobs. As a result, the worker-to-vacancy ratio decreases, more people are working, and wages increase.
Whether these assumptions are actually true or not is subject to debate. I don’t believe they are all true (though some are at least partially true). For the sake of tihs post I assume these things simply to avoid the discussion getting sidetracked. Most likely, each of you (except Larry and other fervent libertarians) believe that at least one or two of the above is true. That’s all that is important. Now, back to the subject at hand.
Whether one is actually paying their own way depends on a number of factors. It depends on the talent or intelligence someone has, the skills they are willing and able to develop, their personal drive, and (this is the important part) the opportunities available to him or her. While the overall strength of the economy is also important, that last part is crucial because in many cases the opportunities available to them depend on the very same government that, in the absence of their ability to find a job, will help them get by through more direct support.
If one is a hard-core, cut-throat libertarian and does not believe that any of the above are legitimate, then the number of people that are truly paying their own way may be very small indeed. To some extent, it means that everyone whose job is under threat because of immigrants or outsourcing but whose job is saved is actually dependent on the government for their livable wage. This is not to argue against these policies. From a non-libertarian’s perspective, the fact that the government might have needed to intervene in order to protect jobs elicits a strong “So what?”. People who are given a job to do (that pays a livable wage).
But that’s the rub. Those that are not given a job to do because the government has declined to intervene or those that do not take jobs that would not support their families or those that have to take jobs and can’t support their families on them are not always going to be substantively different - from an ethical perspective - from those of us fortunate enough to have the skills, connection, and luck to find jobs that do pay well enough to support oneself. Now, we could argue that things in the US are good enough that anyone with a degree of intelligence and werewithal can make a living wage if they so chose. That may be true, but it is not necessarily so.
What do we do about the cases of people that are perfectly willing to work and would prefer to support themselves if given the opportunity but simply lack the opportunity? Do we say that these people should not reproduce? Simply because society has not found a way for them to contribute? Maybe you’re thinking “it’s not society’s job to help people find ways to contribute”, though if you believe any of the Six Assumptions are true and support those policies on that basis, you have to some degree determined that it is indeed the government’s domain to help people find ways to contribute. Maybe you’re thinking “well, to some extent maybe, but not to help everybody.” If so, you’re determining the ability to reproduce based on who you think should be assisted in supporting themselves and you’re using the fact that they can support themselves (with our assistence) to justify their reproduction over those that cannot support themselves without our assistence. (Keep in mind, I am not talking about people that refuse to work or have no interest in working.) It’s a lottery, of sorts. And maybe from a government perspective that is a good idea if you can only help some but not all of those that would be able to support themselves with job protection or assistence, but in terms of fairness or morality towards and between individuals that do not have the right skills in the right economy, it doesn’t hold much water.
To repeat an important point, the question of whether the position that only people that pay their own way should be reproducing is a fair and reasonable one to take is also dependent on how one views the American economy. If you believe that people are being left behind due to circumstances outside their control and their abilities and that the only way to rectify this is through some of the Six Assumptions, you’re standing on weak ground. If you look at the American economy and believe that anyone that wants to make it here can, then that position makes a good deal of sense.
However, even if that was the case yesterday and is the case today, (or if that would be the case if we would just change some policy or another) it is not necessarily the case tomorrow regardless of our policy decisions (unless we go Luddite). One can easily imagine a future in which automation results in an increasing number of Americans being made redundant. That our manufacturing employment sector is struggling is hard to dispute, but our manufacturing output is actually quite strong. The difference is that machines are making things more than people are. This could continue to the service sector as well. Then, by the end, we have a whole lot of engineer-types that are still useful and only menial-types (and artistic-types) that have the connections to get one of the very, very few jobs in their sector. So imagine for a moment where we reach the point where 40% of the population would be better off if the bottom 60% disappeared tomorrow. Does that mean that the bottom 60% should not be reproducing?
Now, even if you do not believe that this high-tech future could come to pass for one reason or another, the policy implications on the Six Assumptions can still be there. Or at least the first two. Imagine that some combination of 30% of Americans including but not limited to most of America’s best and brightest can work it out so that they can give the remaining 70% of Americans their walking papers and be better. They can simply import talent that they can export just as soon as they stop being useful. They can outsource everything except what they do. As a result, as employers they can get by paying their employees considerably less. The products they buy and services they get are cheaper because the labor required to produce (or pick or mine) them are cheaper. Life for them - and remember that they are by and large the maximum producers and capital holders - is dramatically improved. The Bottom 70% are not paying their own way since their very existence makes life slightly less convenient for the Top 30%.
The primary counterargument would be that the Bottom 70% comprise the majority and therefore it is their livelihood, and not that of the Top 30%, that should be taken more into account. Maybe so, but it’s unlikely that this happens all at once. Most likely it’s the Bottom 20% that first stops being able to reproduce. Then it’s the next 20% (in all likelihood the next 20% - and maybe the first - includes intelligent but uncharismatic or personally difficult people). And so on and so on. But beyond that, where precisely do you draw the line. Is the Top 60% really acceptable so that getting rid of the Bottom 40% making their life somewhat better is worthwhile simply because 60% comprises a majority?
Your mileage may vary greatly, but here are my three main takeaways from this line of thinking:
First, the ability to pay one’s own way is highly dependent on factors beyond one’s control. A person that sails in one society sinks in another. Some people will sail in any society and others will sink in any society, but beyond that it’s really quite variable and dependent on matters of economy and government policy. As such, the moral distinction between being able to pay one’s own way versus not being able to is marginal unless one lives in a society where everyone that works hard can pay their own way.
Therefore, if a society is wealthy enough that it can help people support themselves that otherwise would not have a place to, it should do so. This is one of the things that I believe we have society for. I am not advocating welfare or foodstamps here, because the primary distinction ought not be between those that can pay their own way and those that can’t, but rather between those that are willing to try work hard and exhibit reasonable discipline to try to do so. It’s not about wealth distribution per se (because I am including trade policy and immigration policy, to the extent that they help). It’s an imperative to to the extent that society can, it should find a way for as many people as possible to contribute however they can and allowing them to live a respectable life for doing so.
Third, If a society simply cannot support the weight of its redundant but able workforce, then that’s a different matter but an unfortunate one for those that are ultimately excluded. And we should bear in mind that those we are excluding are often going to be victims of circumstance rather than lazy bums.
Now, this post is more political than I usually get here at Hit Coffee, but I’ve kept it abstract for a reason. I don’t want to get to debating the merits of individual proposals for How To Save The Middle And Working Classes or anything like that. Everyone has their theories. I have my doubts about at least a few of the Six Assumptions, so don’t take this post to mean that I am advocating any of those policies. I mention policies from the right and left merely to cover more ground. While I am aware that there are reasons put forth to restrict immigration having nothing to do with jobs or wage-suppression, this post is not about those other reasons. Also, this post is looking at those that cannot pay their own way that are generally well-behaved. The negative externality of crime is not applicable here as that could theoretically be addressed without regard to one’s ability to pay one’s own way.
Update: I make a reference to “Six Assumptions” in the most. I am referring to the five above. There were originally six, though I eliminated the 6th and can’t remember what it was. Also, a big thanks to Web who fixed an HTML problem on my part and made the post readable.
Update II: Maria is contesting the notion that (outside of the immigration population) there is a problem with the lower end of the economic spectrum reproducing in especially high numbers. Honestly, the Idiocracy meme is almost so hardwired it hadn’t even really occurred to me that it might be illusory. A collection of anecdotes where my intelligent but largely non-reproducing family and social network could be something of an exception and the babies that Clancy delivered or stood in the deliver room for the past decade or so might be distorting our perspective. So As it is always good to question the assumptions we sometimes erroneously take for granted, I’m going to look into it.
Update III: Okay, it took me about two minutes to find links demonstrating that birth-rate indeed negatively correlates with education (and thus likely means). What I can’t find, though, is any indication that this is a trend that is becoming more significant. In fact, according to the links I have found, we were dysgenic all of last century. Before the Pill, before the the New Deal, before the Great Society, before abortion. Anyone with any data on how this trend is accelerating or decelerating would be greatly appreciated. It appears as though it is cyclical with the economy with the correlation being strongest during bad economic times. But I’ve only seen references to that as a trend. No data references.