The Pauper Principle

Jeffrey Sachs wrote what bugs him about libertarianism.  Here’s one passage:

Suppose a rich man has a surfeit of food and a poor man living next door is starving to death. The libertarian says that the government has no moral right or political claim to tax the rich person in order to save the poor person. Perhaps the rich person should be generous and give charity to the neighbor, the libertarian might say (or might not), but there is nothing that the government should do. The moral value of saving the poor person’s life simply does not register when compared with the liberty of the rich person.

While I find this to be an unimaginative and simplistic false choice, I’ll play along.

I’m assuming Sachs believes it is moral for the government to tax the rich person to “save” the poor person.  In other words, it’s moral to force the rich person to do something.

The question I have for Sachs is whether he also thinks it’s moral to force the poor person to do something? For example, can the government force the poor person to give two hours of his labor to the rich person in exchange for receiving the tax?

Keep in mind, the poor person would not have a choice in the matter, just like the rich person.  The poor person wouldn’t be able choose not to work in order to not receive the tax.  The poor person would be forced to work and to receive the tax, just like the rich person would be forced to give up some of the proceeds from his work effort.

Is that moral?  Why or why not?


2 thoughts on “The Pauper Principle

  1. Forced behavior is never moral. Forcing people to act is never moral. The welfare state must fail because it is compulsory and because it, by definition, depletes the resources actually delivered to those in need, because those who pass them along must receive compensation for their work.

    Forcing the wealthy person to employ the poor person is no more moral. Morality hinges on one essential mechanism: free will. Without it, no action, even the one that appears to be virtuous, is actually moral.

  2. Your post reminded me of these lines by David Kelley in “The Morality of Capitalism” (edited by Cato’s Tom Palmer):

    “Suppose I can produce and simply choose not to? Suppose I am capable of earning a much larger income than I do, the taxes on which would support a person who will otherwise go hungry. Am I obliged to work harder, to earn more, for the sake of that person? I do not know any philosopher of welfare who would say that I am. The moral claim imposed on me by another person’s need is contingent not only on my ability but also on my willingness to produce.”


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