A Philosopher's Blog

Should The State Forbid Buying Fish with Food Stamps?

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on April 17, 2015

Some states have passed or are considering laws that would restrict what government aid can be used to purchase. One apparently pro-active approach, taken by my adopted state of Florida, has been to weed out drug users by requiring recipients of aid to pass a drug test. In Missouri, there has been an effort to prevent food stamp recipients from using their aid to buy steak or seafood. In Kansas a proposed law forbids people receiving government assistance from using those funds to visit swimming pools, buy movie tickets, gamble or get tattoos.

While these proposals and policies are fueled primarily by unwarranted stereotypes of the poor, it is possible to argue in their favor and two such arguments will be considered. Both arguments share a common principle, namely that the state needs to protect certain citizens from harm (which is a reasonable principle). The first argument centers on the need for the state to protect the poor from their poor decision making. The second focuses on the need to protect the taxpayers from being exploited by the poor.

The first argument is essentially an appeal to paternalism: the poor are incapable of making their own good decisions and thus the wisdom of the lawmakers must guide them. If left unguided, the poor will waste their limited government support on things like drugs, gambling, tattoos, steak and lobsters. This approach certainly has a philosophical pedigree. Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, argued that the compulsive power of the state should be used to compel the citizens to be virtuous. Other thinkers, usually those who favor totalitarianism, also find the idea of such paternalism very appealing.

Despite the pedigree of this approach, it is always reasonable to inquire as to whether a law is actually needed or not. In the case of a law that forbids, the obvious line of inquiry is to investigate the extent to which people engage in the behavior that is supposed to be forbidden by the law.

Despite the anecdotal evidence of Fox News’ infamous welfare surfer, there seems to be little evidence that people who receive state aid are blowing their state aid on strip clubs, drugs, steak or lobster. Rather, the poor (like almost everyone else) spend most of their money on things like housing and non-luxury food. In regards to drugs, people on support are no more likely than anyone else to be using them. As such, unless it can be clearly shown that a significant percentage of aid recipients are engaged in such “poor choices”, these laws would seem to be solutions in search of a problem.

It is also reasonable to consider whether or not a law is morally consistent in regards to how all citizens are treated. If the principle at work is that recipients of state money must be guided by the state because they cannot be trusted to make their own decisions, then this must be extended to all recipients of such money. This would include farmers getting subsidies, companies getting government contracts, government employees, recipients of tax breaks (such as the mortgage tax breaks), and so on. This is all government aid.

This is a matter of moral consistency—if some citizens must be subject to strict restrictions on how the state money can be spent and perhaps pass a drug test before getting it, then the same must apply to all citizens. Unless, of course, a relevant difference can be shown.

It could be argued that the poor, despite the lack of evidence, are simply more wasteful and worse at spending decisions than the rest of the population. While this does match the stereotypical narrative that some like to push, it does not seem to match reality. After all, billions of dollars simply vanished in Iraq. One does not need to spend much time on Google to find multitudes of examples of how non-poor recipients of state money wasted it or blew it on luxuries.

It could then be argued that extending this principle to everyone would be a good idea. After all, people who are not poor make bad decisions with state money and this shows that they are in need of the guiding wisdom of the state and strict control. Of course, this would result in a paternalistic (or “nanny” as some prefer) state that so many self-proclaimed small government freedom lovers professes to dislike.

Obviously, it is also important to consider whether or not a law will be more harmful or more beneficial. While it could be argued that the poor would be better off if compelled by the state to spend their aid money on what the state deems they should spend it on, there is still the fact that these policies and proposals are solutions in search of a problem. That is, these laws would not benefit people because they are typically not engaged in wasteful spending to begin with.

There is also the moral concern about the harm done to the autonomy and dignity of the recipients of the aid. It is, after all, an assault on a person’s dignity to assume that she is wasteful and bad at making decisions. It is an attack on a person’s autonomy to try to control him, even for his own good.

It might be countered that if the poor accept the state’s money, then they must accept the restrictions imposed by the state. While this does have some appeal, consistency would (as noted above) require this to be applied to everyone getting state money. Which includes the rich. And the people passing such laws. Presumably they would not like to be treated this way and consistency would seem to require that they treat others as they would wish to be treated.

The second main argument for such restrictions is based on the claim that they are needed to protect the taxpayers from being exploited by the poor. While some do contend that any amount of state aid is too much and is theft from the taxpayers (the takers stealing from the makers), such restrictions at least accept that the poor should receive some aid. But, this aid must be for essentials and not wasted—otherwise the taxpayers’ money is being (obviously enough) wasted.

As was discussed above, an obvious point of concern is whether or not such waste is occurring at a level that justifies the compulsive power of the state being employed. As noted above, these proposals and policies seem to be solutions in search of a problem. As a general rule, laws and restrictions should not be imposed without adequate justification and this seems lacking in this case.

This is not to say that people should not be concerned that taxpayer money is being wasted or spent unwisely. It, in fact, is. However, this is not a case of the clever poor milking the middleclass and the rich. Rather, it is a case of the haves milking the have-less. One prime example of this is wealthfare, much of which involves taxpayer money going to subsidize and aid those who are already quite well off, such as corporations. So, I do agree that the taxpayer needs to be protected from exploitation. But, the exploiters are not the poor. This should be rather obvious—if they were draining significant resources from the rest of the citizens, they would no longer be poor.

But, some might still insist, the poor really are spending their rather small aid money on steak, lobsters, strip clubs and gambling. One not unreasonable reply is that “man does not live by bread alone” and it does not seem wrong that the poor would also have a chance to enjoy the tiny luxuries or fun that their small amount of aid can buy.  Assuming, of course, that they are not spending everything on food and shelter. I would certainly not begrudge a person an occasional steak or beer. Or a swim in a pool. I do, of course, think that people should spend wisely, but that is another matter.


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High Capacity, High Powered Semi-Automatic

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 18, 2012
English: A Vektor LM5, the semi-automatic vers...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The mass killing that occurred in Sandy Hook Elementary school in December of 2012 ignited the debate over guns once again. Sadly, the event followed what is becoming a script: a mentally disturbed person seeks out a concentration of unarmed targets and commits murder until stopped. The American media then focuses the spotlight on the issues raised by the event and the pundits and commentators appear to say the usual things about guns, laws, and the mentally ill. As usual, the rote blaming of video games and movies also occurs.


Being a sane and ethical person, I was saddened by the terrible murders. I would certainly prefer that such an event never occur, which is true of most people. As might be imagined, there are many suggestions regarding what should be done to reduce the chances of such murders occurring again. One area of focus is, not surprisingly, on the weapons.


Folks in the media tend to focus obsessively on the weapons used in such terrible crimes and, somewhat ironically given this obsession, often display their ignorance of such weapons. The murderer at Sandy Hook had two semi-automatic pistols (a Glock 10mm and a Sig Sauer 9mm) and a Bushmaster .223 assault rifle (essentially a civilian version of the M-16 assault rifle). Watching the media coverage, I noticed considerable focus on the fact that these weapons are semi-automatic and the way the matter was discussed seemed to be aimed at creating the impression that this was somehow unusual or new. However, semi-automatic weapons date back over a century and they are rather common. For those who are ignorant of weapons, a semi-automatic weapon is (crudely put) such that once manually cocked it will fire a round with each pull of the trigger with the weapon automatically chambering a new round and cocking after each shot (until the rounds are exhausted). This is in contrast with weapons that require manual reloading and cocking. For example, the classic Winchester lever action rifle (the one seen in cowboy movies) requires that the user work a lever to eject the empty shell casing, load a new round and “cock” the gun. Fully automatic weapons, such as a machine gun, will fire until the trigger is released or the ammunition is expended (or a jam occurs).


The main concern expressed regarding semi-automatic weapons is that they have a higher rate of fire relative to weapons such as revolvers, lever action rifles, pump shotguns and other such weapons. As such, a person armed with a semi-automatic weapon can potentially kill people faster than a comparably skilled person who is armed with a slower weapon. It is also commonly asserted that there is no legitimate use for such weapons and this is often expressed in terms of their not being suitable for hunting. From these claims it is often argued that such weapons should be banned to increase safety. The rather obvious concern is whether or not such a ban would have an impact on such incidents.


One obvious concern is that semi-automatic weapons are only marginally faster than many other weapons, such as revolvers and pump shotguns. As such, even if a potential killer did not have access to semi-automatic weapons, such a person could still kill many people. However, it could be argued that the possibility of slight to moderate reduction in carnage would justify a ban on such weapons. There is, however, the rather obvious fact that someone who is willing to murder other people is probably not going to decide to call off his planned (or unplanned) slaughter because he does not have semi-automatic weapons.


Of course, it is not just the semi-automatic aspect of such weapons that gets attention. There is also the concern that they often have high capacity magazines. A typical 9mm pistol magazine holds 15 rounds, although extended magazines can be purchased.  More powerful handguns, such as the .45, typically hold fewer rounds. Military style rifles typically hold 20-30 rounds, although very high capacity drum clips (so named because they look like drums) are also available.


The concern with high capacity magazines is that the user of the weapon can fire more without reloading, thus increasing his ability to sustain fire. Reloading, obviously, takes time away from shooting and a person who is reloading is effectively unarmed and thus more vulnerable to being taken out by an intended target. As such, high capacity magazines make mass killings easier and thus presumably more likely to occur.


As with the semi-automatic feature of guns, it is often claimed that there is no legitimate reason for civilian weapons to have high capacity magazines. After all, as is often pointed out, hunters are typically restricted in the number of rounds they are allowed to have in their guns and this is usually a low number, such as three.


Combining these claims, one can argue that high capacity magazines should be banned—as was done in the 1990s.


One rather obvious concern is that even if a potential killer had access only to low capacity weapons, he could work around this limitation in two ways. One way is to simply carry more weapons and switch them as their magazines are exhausted. Another way is to practice reloading. Swapping clips can be done very rapidly and even revolvers have speed loaders that can fill the entire cylinder in about the time it would otherwise take to put a single round in the weapon.  While lack of access to high capacity clips would have some impact on the rate at which a person can kill, the impact would not seem to be considerable. There is also the obvious fact that a lack of high capacity magazines certainly would not deter a would be mass murderer from engaging in murder.


Much of the media coverage of the terrible murders in Connecticut has described the .223 Bushmaster as a high powered weapon. While the .223 round is more powerful than most pistol rounds, it is actually not a high powered round compared to the rounds used in actual high powered hunting rifles, sniper rifles and battle rifles. After all, many hunting rifles are designed to kill large animals such as deer and bear with single shots. Naturally, a .223 round can kill a person—but to characterize it as a high powered round seems to be either a mark of ignorance or an attempt to make the weapon seem more frightening.


Somewhat ironically, high-powered rifles actually do have a legitimate role in hunting (of course, some people consider hunting an illegitimate activity). Most of the lighter rounds (such as the .223 and the 9mm) were actually intended to be used against human targets. Banning actual high powered weapons would seem to have little impact since they are generally not the weapon of choice for such murders. Banning the lower powered weapons would make some sense—unless one considers that killers would simply go with the actual high powered weapons and this might actually result in more deaths.


On the face of it, it would seem that focusing on the usual suspects (high capacity, high power semi-automatic weapons) would have little impact. After all, people intent on slaughter would simply turn to alternatives.


I turn now to the general matter of gun bans. Suppose, for the sake of discussion, that the sale of new guns was banned. This could be a ban on specific types of weapons (such as assault weapons or scary weapons) or a general ban on all guns.


Even if such a ban became law tomorrow, there would still be millions of guns in the hands of the public. While some guns will break, get confiscated by the police or be otherwise taken out of circulation, it will take a very long time for the existing base of guns to be reduced significantly by normal attrition. After all, a well-made gun will last a very long time if properly maintained.


This, of course, the fact that the process would be slow is not a reason to not have a weapon ban. However, it is worth keeping in mind that even if the ban went into effect yesterday, it would be a very long time before it had a significant effect. There is also the fact that if someone who is intent on mass murder cannot get a gun, then he is very likely to use some other means, such as explosives or even a knife (as occurred in China).


Because of the slowness of natural attrition, it might be suggested that the government should pass a law allowing private weapons to be confiscated by the state. One approach would be for the state to buy the guns and then destroy them (or equip the police with them). This would be an expensive endeavor and, of course, many gun owners would refuse to part with their guns—even if they were offered fair market value.


A second approach would be for the government to simply seize guns (using force if need be) on the grounds upon which any illegal possession can be seized by the state. This raises the moral concern about violating property rights and also raises a very practical concern: some people will see this as the fulfillment of their once paranoid fear that the government would be coming for their guns. While some people will yield to the superior firepower of the state, it seems likely that others will resist such attempts violently, resulting in injuries and death. There is also the matter of the broader impact, such as how what would seem to be a clear violation of the Constitution would be perceived. Criminals would, of course, not turn over their weapons and would no doubt be pleased that the general population had been disarmed by the state—thus making them easier targets. When considering such an approach, such costs should be carefully considered. This is not to say that the results would not be worth the cost, but this is something that we should rationally consider. If it is worth the cost, then this is something that should stand rational scrutiny and not require an appeal to emotions, however understandable those emotions might be.


While I, in general, like guns I would feel slightly safer in a world without guns. Of course, I know the history of violence fairly well and know that people would just go back to other ways of killing and probably invent some new ones.


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When is it Time to Discuss Gun Violence?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 17, 2012
Coalition to Stop Gun Violence

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the murders at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut, a standard script was followed by the media and the pundits on various sides. Part of this script is that people who are against guns typically demand more gun control and some people who are pro-gun counter by claiming that the time after such a terrible incident is not the time to discuss changes in law.

My focus in this essay is to address the matter of when it is time to discuss gun violence and, in particular, changes in laws or policies regarding guns.

On the one hand, those who claim that the matter of gun laws should not be discussed right after a tragedy do have a reasonable point. After all, people reason even more poorly than usual when they are experiencing strong emotions. There is, of course, an abundance of fallacies that are “fueled” by the power of emotions to lead people astray from good reasoning. Examples include the classics such as appeal to anger, appeal to pity, and appeal to fear. In these fallacies, the general idea that something that creates an emotional effect (anger, pity or fear) is used as a substitute for an actual reason to accept a claim. As might be imagined, people are even more likely to commit such fallacies when they are in emotional states.

The reasonable concern is, of course, that people will make poor decisions regarding laws or policies while under the influence of their emotions and that these decisions can have negative consequences or, at the very least, lead to ineffective “solutions.” Presumably better decisions would be made after the emotions have cooled and, of course, we should endeavor to make laws and policies when our reasoning is at its best.

On the other hand, there are reasonable concerns that waiting to discuss such matters could be problematic. First, there is the worry that concern about gun violence will simply fade away as people are distracted by other things and forget about the murders at Sandy Hook. As such, a delay could result not in a more reasonable discussion of gun laws and policies but in no real discussion at all. This seems to be a common cycle: the media focuses on a terrible event involving guns for a few days and then the matter just fades away until the next incident. As such, it seems reasonable to push for serious discussion now when people are paying attention.

Second, there is the worry that the push to wait is not really a call to wait until we can have calm reflection on the matter but a considered tactic on the part of certain people to take advantage of the media’s and the public’s short attention span. That is, if the discussion can be held off long enough, people will forget about the matter (as noted above) and the status quo will continue.

While I certainly favor a rational discussion of the matter, I think that this can be done without waiting until people have mostly lost interest in the matter. As such, I think it is certainly time to discuss the matter seriously.


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