Moral Blameworthiness and Elasticity

Bryan Caplan’s next big project is entitled Poverty: Who to Blame, a cornerstone topic of which will be “moral blameworthiness“.  Caplan discusses the concept in short in a recent exchange with Robin Hanson:

Unlike Robin, I should add, I’m a big believer in moral blameworthiness.  Whether we’re discussing poverty or involuntary celibacy, I think we should always start by investigating whether the sufferer is culpable for his own woes.  And empirically, I think the sufferer usually is highly culpable…At the same time, though, I freely admit that a sizable minority of people suffer blamelessly. A severe congenital handicap could easily lead to both severe poverty and isolation despite exemplary behavior. Should government do anything about this? I don’t know…

This analysis, and the forthcoming book, relies on deontological moral philosophy that is pretty alien to economic analysis, which almost presoposes consequentialism.  While Caplan would reply that even the most deterministic and consequentialist person would still likely be angry at a close friend for committing a morally blameworthy action, I think that moral blameworthiness actually squares quite nicely with a topic covered in every ECON-101 class: elasticity.

To review: elasticity can be thought of as a measure of a person’s responsiveness to incentives for a certain action.  An activity with low elasticity- like buying food- is not very responsive to changes in incentives.  If the price of food were to double, for example, I wouldn’t reduce my consumption of food by nearly that much, so we say that food is an “inelastic” good.  On the flip side, activities with high elasticity- such as buying tickets to a concert- are very responsive to changing incentives.  If the price concert tickets doubled, I would reduce my consumption of concerts by more than 50%, so we call them “elastic” goods.

What’s the connection to moral blameworthiness?  It seems to me that actions considered morally blameworthy are also actions with very high elasticities, and vice versa.   We can see this apply to some of Caplan’s examples of morally blameworthy and non blameworthy behavior:

If your girlfriend misses your birthday, “My car and phone both broke down” is a better reason than “I forgot.”

Maintenance of your car and phone is much less elastic than maintenance of your memory.  The promise of a hundred dollar payout would likely be enough for you to remember even an incredibly arbitrary fact for a year, but an equivalent promise for a year without car or phone trouble probably wouldn’t change your behavior at all.

If a co-worker goes home early and asks you to cover for him, “I have the flu” is a better reason than “I want to play Skyrim.”

Again, if I were to pay a group of volunteers a large sum to go a month without videogames, most, if not all, would likely follow through.  A similar group paid to go a month without getting sick would probably see only a small reduction in the rate of flu cases compared to the general population.

In a future post we’ll cover why the similarity between moral blameworthiness and elasticity strengthens the case for means-testing- a case typically made using moral philosophy rather than economics.

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