Pull Yourself Up By Your Bootstraps, Dammit

Friday, November 22nd 2013

I've been pondering the "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" philosophy. I don't agree with it, but here's my attempt to write it down.


Mostly, your initial circumstances are determined by luck. You don't choose where you are born, what your inherited characteristics and proclivities are. You have no control over the vicissitudes of Fate. Your initial circustances may be cruel or fortunate or somewhere in between. It is not a just world. Some people are born lucky, some are born unlucky.

But volition remains intact.

Anecdotes that seem to prove people can overcome anything. The pensioner who climbs Mount Everest. The athlete born dirt poor who goes on to become a superstar. The clerk who becomes a CEO. The paralysed person who writes novels. The rich man from poor origins who becomes a philanthropist.

If these people can do it, why can't you? Anecdote after anecdote says that everybody - with effort - can make choices that overcome difficult circumstances. They can make their own luck.

In that context, you are free to make choices. It is in your power to fail or succeed within the limits imposed by your circumstances. To make an effort or be lazy. To try and make the life you want, or put up with the one you end up with.

So, in the face of an imperfect world and varying circumstances, nearly everybody has access to a font of volition.

How they choose to use it is up to them.

Conditional Charity and the Undeserving


It's not your fault if you're old a frail, born with a disability, and so on.

Sometimes peoples' circumstances mean that they can't make any good choices. Chance determines the options … and none of the options are any good. No amount of effort or willpower will change that.

The more charitable try to help these people by giving them better options. To give them an opportunity, so to speak.

But some people will carry on making bad choices anyway. What's the point in helping them? They are eschewing opportunity. These people are undeserving of help. (They may even be exploiting other peoples' charitable instincts.)

So: if a person makes a bad choice from amongst good and bad options, their relative hardship is justified.

Equally: if people make good choices their relative comfort and happiness is justified, too.


It has a certain moral symmetry. If you work hard and apply your will power, you'll get what you deserve (or at least be correct in seeking help if you have some bad luck). If you follow your dreams with singular dedication then they will come true.

If you are lazy or self-indulgent you will be punished. You will descend shamefully into the lagubrious torpor of the undeserving.

Without those sorts of incentives (or veiled threats), many people will indulge their baser instincts and lapse into turpitude and end up exploiting the efforts of others.

For a society to work it needs to organise itself to deal with the vicissitudes of Fate, not try and implement an impractical ideal with (possibly) counterintuitive results.

So: the suffering that results from not making an effort needs to exceed the suffering involved in working hard to overcome your circumstances. Otherwise we don't collectively overcome out circumstances.

Social security, charity and so on, should be based around that essential premise.

The Deserving & the Undeserving

The deserving make the choices that involves effort and discipline. They keep an end in mind. They work toward a better life. They accept a form of suffering that yields positive results in the long run. They try to overcome their circumstances. They may even reduce collective long term suffering through their grit and determination and the contributions they make to the society.

The weak-willed and lazy avoid that sort of discipline. They show little regard for the long run. They live for the moment. They don't think about the future. They end up stuck with the long term suffering that results. Over time they are a net drain on the world around them.

  1. The deserving consider the consequences of their actions carefully. They pursue responsible ends despite suffering; they suffer toward a worthwhile end.

  2. The undeserving choose to abandon responsible long term aims for short term gain. They end up ignoble. They suffer in the long term by pursuing short term indulgence. By choosing short term indulgence they chose long term pain.

Drug addicts, people who don't save or prepare for their retirement, hedonists of all kinds, intellectual hedonists (utopians), people who don't get insurance, people who shirk responsibility and hard work. These sorts of people pursue short-term indulgence. They are the metaphorical or literal children, the irresponsible, the idealistic, the unrealistic, the people who avoid dealing with reality.

People who save, take responsibility for themselves, build nest eggs, prepare for the future, start businesses, make the hard decisions, invest for the long term; these people pursue practical worthwhile ends. They are the adults. The parents. The practical, responsible people who see the world as it is and take practical steps to improve it.

They may not always be the most idealistic people. But idealism is often a dangerous indulgence. It blinds you to reality. Indeed, the pursuit of an ideal may be foolish! Unless the person has access to the totality of knowledge, her quest won't account for the manifold vagaries of the world and will usually lead to dysptopian results. (see "An Imperfect World & the Fool's Errand" below)

It is fortunate that the conscious pursuit of idealism is unecessary for progress. The pursuit of one's own interests - rather than more noble, idealistic aspirations - can lead to a better world. People will put remarkable effort into doing things if they see the reward for that effort. The classic cliche from Adam Smith sums this idea up beautifully:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

Well organised self-interest and some noble long term aspirations tempered by realism, can lead to a better world. It's an approach that deals with the world as it is.

An Imperfect World & the Fool's Errand

But there's a problem with this philosphy of the deserving and the undeserving. Why would a person freely make the choice to suffer?

What if someone is born to abusive parents? What if he ends up repressing the memories of that childhood torment by taking drugs? Is he to blame for being drug addled?

What about the rich kid who is depressed because he has has the free time to contemplate the nature of his existence and finds it wanting? Should his angst be trivialised?

What about someone born into a background that doesn't equip her with the confidence, vocabulary, body language and cultural mores to come across well in job interviews? Is she to blame because she doesn't ever have enough money?

What about the kid born to well to do middle class parents who has every opportunity to pursue what interests him? Is he more deserving than the woman who never had that start in life?

What about the kid born into a village who never gets past two due to famine? What about the pensioner who ends up alone because all his friends die and his family is overseas? What about the homeless lady who was raped as a child and spends all her time fighting demons from her past? What about a person who contracts MRSA and dies in hospital leaving a family without an income? Are they to blame for their poverty?

Have a heart you heartless bastards!

Again, you might reply, the world is unfair. It's a good thing to try and give people opportunities to overcome their circumstances.


There is no guarantee that the good choices you make will lead to a better life. Sometimes you can make bad choices and be rewarded. Just as the circumstances you find yourself in, the ones beyond volition, may be unfair.

If you could wave the provebial magic wand and make the world a kinder, better place you would. But Nature is a harsh mistress.

Trying to make the world fair is a fool's errand. The flabby utopian self-indulgence of intellectual hedonists too blinded by the abstract to see the practical consequences of their idealism.

Society can only change slowly and with painstaking hard work. We cannot change it just by wishing it to be better or acting purely on emotional ideals. The world is too complex to yield to the relatively simplistic prescriptions implicit in an imposition of idealism.

For instance: if you try to alleviate the undeserving's suffering you tacitly approve of their behaviour. You end up rewarding bad choices. So bad choices keep being made. Over time, the pattern of bad decision making is more inculcated and intransigent than before. "You send the wrong message".

The deserving, through their diligent pursuit of long term practical ends, build up resources and know-how. That pool ends up being drained away - stolen - to pay for the alleviation of foolishness. You just end up rewarding the lazy and indolent and penalising those who work hard and overcome bad luck or make the best of it.

But it's even worse: resources are being allocated to short term indulgence rather than responsible long term improvement.

As each attempt to alleviate the suffering fails because of the bad choices it encourages, the attempts to alleviate suffering expand in scope. At each turn they become more hysterical and unrealistic. Keeping doing more of what has failed! That will work!

Long term you have a problem. No institution or person has the wisdom to devise a system to smooth out the incredible variation in peoples' personalities and circumstances. Attempts to do so just systemise foolishness. This increases suffering in the long term because you systematically reward bad choices on a bigger and grander scale often through simple ignorance of the repercussions of your idealism. You are in a cylical decline. A death spiral of sorts.

Over time, at the margins between being lazy and indolent and being active and hard working, the logic becomes: why bother working hard if others just sit around sponging off me? Why not just be a sponger? So the sponger population expands at each turn.

Over time, you end up with a society that doesn't allocate its resources toward sensible long term improvement. It just settles for indulging bad choices and impractical charitable instincts that feel good in the short term but lead systematically to bad behaviour and bad results over time.

This a dangerous thing to do. As attempts to alleviate the undeserving's suffering systematically increase in scope and hyteria, attempts to alleviate peoples' suffering usually involves telling people what to do. But the system is inherently clumsy and impractical because it is too simple to accommodate the subtlety of the real world. So it ends up telling people who would otherwise make perfectly good choices what to do as well. Because the system is making bad choices or (at the very least) rewarding bad choices, the system to alleviate suffering ends up forcing people, or at least encouraging them, to make bad choices over time.

Make enough bad choices collectively and you end up with a society that wallows in bad luck and excuses. It demands things, it doesn't create them. It calls for action but never takes it. It doesn't punish bad behaviour it excuses or indulges it. It indulges and rewards indolence and punishes effort. It covers up truths and replaces them with vacuous platitudes compatible with the ideals of the time. The society becomes undisciplined. It lacks practical long term thinking. It stops dealing with an imperfect world and starts pandering to the utopian flights of fancy of intellectual hedonists and idulgent short-term thinkers. It stops making steady progress. It idealistically stumbles toward stagnation, quixotically trying to alleviate the suffering of the undeserving; all the while compounding it.

Indeed, the urge to alleviate the suffering of the undeserving - noble on the surface - is an impractical indulgence in itself. It emphasises short term, feel-good emotions over long term plans to practically overcome circumstances in a more robust way.

As the promise of the ideals diverge from reality and the level of suffering increases. The systematic misallocation of resources away from practical activity means circumstances get worse for everybody. Circumstances become more desperate. Attempts to impose the original ideals become more and more hysterical, outlandish and authoritarian. You end up with tyranny dressed in tattered garb of noble ideals.

Here's an alternative view:

Guaranteed Income & the Future of Capitalism