Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

Money and Control

“I never give money to those people,” she said. “They’re only going to spend it on drugs, anyway.” And what’s so wrong with that?, I wondered. I can see why one might want to discourage Harvard students from spending all their time getting stoned (although, I have to say, I don’t see anyone doing that), but if your life is spent sitting outside, hungry, cold, and miserable, drugs seem like a pretty decent use of the money.

But, more importantly, since when is that your call to make? That you live in a nice house with a bulging wallet and he lives on the street is due to an enormous number of random factors that could just as easily have been reversed. And even if you’re arrogant enough to believe you’re a better person in some way — smarter, harder-working, more ambitious — since when does being better give you the right to tell other people how to live their lives? Is Tiger Woods allowed to just come along and take the chocolate out of your shopping cart at the supermarket?

It is a sad fact of reality that you have money and he has none and that, as a result, he needs the money to buy material goods. But no moral consequences can be derived from this. Just because history has given you the power to choose whether this person can acquire certain material goods doesn’t give you the right to make that call.

Now it’s true, you don’t have to give him money at all. Most don’t. But if you feel that other people deserve to live a life without privation, at least let them choose how to live that life.

Perhaps an example closer to home will help. Remember when your father offered to help you buy a house if only you went back to school? That was the same thing — trying to use the fact that he had money and you didn’t in order to get you to do what he wanted. For years, he’d been trying to get you to go back to school; and you didn’t, because it was your decision and you didn’t want to. But then he realized he could use the money to control you. Remember how that chafed?

At the time you brushed it off as “his money, his call”. But don’t you see how that’s not true? Whether you go to school or not was never his call. And while it’s certainly within his rights to help you buy a house, using that to try to and control you was wrong. You deserve to make your own choices about your life — we all do.

Including that man there.

You should follow me on twitter here.

April 20, 2008


Hi Aaron,

While I struggle with the practical implications of your thoughts here, I can’t argue much with the logic behind them.

I wonder, who is talking about the relationship between the “logic” of our actions regarding society, and the “effects” of those action? Perhaps I’m getting at this question: on what basis should we evaluate our actions re: society? Logic? Emotion? Pragmatism? Social Darwinism?

Thanks for sharing your Thoughts…


posted by Steve Ivy on April 20, 2008 #

“Just because history has given you the power to choose whether this person can acquire certain material goods doesn’t give you the right to make that call.”

If I’m paying for the material goods, I feel like I should have a certain amount of power over what goods are purchased. I have a moral opposition to drugs, and so therefore I won’t dispense money unless I know for certain it won’t be used for drugs. Subsequently, I don’t give money to bums that are likely to use it for drugs.

When you ask other people for money without giving something in return, you necessarily give up some of your rights to privacy and the usage of that money. See: Food stamps, etc. The person giving the money isn’t trying to control the person receiving it, they’re just trying to make the most effective (morally and economically) usage of their money.

posted by Erik Peterson on April 20, 2008 #

But your Dad has the right to refuse money if you don’t go back to school, right?

And thus she has the right to refuse money to people whom will use it to buy drugs, right?

Freedom, eh?

posted by Brett on April 20, 2008 #

Erik: Thanks for sharing your feelings, but do you have any justification for them? You are trying to control someone thru the use of your money. You may consider that control “effective”, but at what?

posted by Aaron Swartz on April 20, 2008 #

That you live in a nice house with a bulging wallet and he lives on the street is due to an enormous number of random factors that could just as easily have been reversed. And even if you’re arrogant enough to believe you’re a better person in some way — smarter, harder-working, more ambitious — since when does being better give you the right to tell other people how to live their lives?

But that’s not really true. What you seem to be saying is that in effect people are not responsible for their actions. Sure, there are a whole bunch of “random” inheritances I got from my family, including both genes, prenatal health, etc. as well as cultural endowments like being taught to elevate certain behaviors over others, reading, learning, etc. as well as social endowments by being upper middle class. In so far as any success I have as a direct relationship to these things without any reflection upon my choices and behaviors what you say is true. But while these things help, they are clearly not the only thing that matters.

My mom came to this country when she was in her teens not speaking the language from a small down which didn’t have schooling past 5th grade and became a doctor at a time when Women Weren’t Doctors. There is a moral difference between doing that and coming from a similar place and not doing that. One is better than the other, and the reason that it is so is because of the effort and the choices that someone made. If my mom didn’t fight to achieve then it wouldn’t have happened. If she wasn’t as smart as she was or had a different temperament or different genes or different parents than it wouldn’t happen. If she was a paranoid schizophrenic then it wouldn’t happen.

But there still is very clearly a difference. Somethings are in your control, and you are responsible. There is a moral dimension, especially when things are more-or-less equal. If your homeless man is a mentally healthy individual who came from opportunities than, frankly, he’s an asshole. But this example is contrived, because most of the homeless I see (I live in NYC so that’s at least 5 before i get to the office every morning) basically should be in an institution where they are fed and sheltered because they are sick, either mental illness or PTSD or something which we are being heartless by letting them suffer on their own.

Not everything is in your control; but quite a lot is. “History” is not what gives people power, it is a combination of their circumstances and what they do with those circumstances, and that’s where some people are better than others. And by better, I mean better at playing the hands that they were dealt. And to push the cards analogy further, you see the same faces at the last table of the poker tournaments. So even if the hands are “random”, as they are in the games, the way and the skilled with which they are player dominates the results. Not any sort of “random acts of history”.

So you have proved that you are “better” at living your live as someone else. Ok, what gives you the right to tell anyone else? Well, that’s not really the situation. The other person is asking for money, which means that the other person is not in fact acting independently. The “right of control” is given when the person asks. If they didn’t ask for anything, then there is no right. The right basically stems from the fact that the person who has the money or is giving something away is obligated to act morally; they are responsible for their actions. And if giving you money encourages you to do something immoral or wrong, like say killing yourself with drugs (I actually don’t care about drugs but when you are in a liquor store watching a homeless guy buy thunderbird in nickels and dimes and the guy behind the counter says something about “needing to have their medicine” you wonder who those assholes are who enable them to wallow in the street rather than say housing and feeding them), well, you can’t shirk the responsibilities of your action having consequences. And that’s where the control imperative comes from.

posted by Will on April 20, 2008 #

I’m not trying to control a person through money, I’m trying to control my own money, which I work to earn. I don’t think I’m unreasonable for trying to direct the flow of my own money.

I think you have a drastically different view on the ownership of money than I do.

posted by Erik Peterson on April 20, 2008 #

I guess the point is: until I give it away, it is still my money. So if I am going to invest in a human, I’d prefer to do it in a way that doesn’t lead to more self destruction. I give money to things like the local food bank, and other local city projects that. If folks are really hungry, they know where to go.

Another way to look at it: a friend is in need of some money. Let’s say health problems took their toll, and he or she is in the middle of rebuilding their life. While, I would support them in getting some improved quality of life over just simply surviving, I would not gift them money if they could barely pay their rent, and they are out buying the latest and greatest iPhone and skipping off to LA.

I’ll gladly give me money away to help folks survive, but otherwise my ‘extra’ money is for MY luxury, not theirs. So, I guess it is a pecking order. Someone else’s survival, should be more important than my luxury, but your luxury will rarely, if ever, trump mine.

posted by KiltBear on April 20, 2008 #

Are you really helping someone by feeding their habit?

Here’s an idea: if there’s a restaurant or food shop not too far from where you are, ask the person if they’re hungry and offer to buy them lunch / dinner. If it’s cold outside a soup and sandwich, or a meatball sub, can help.

posted by David Magda on April 20, 2008 #

i think there are few things at play here:

  1. there will always be poor people.

  2. there is a difference between being “broke” and being “poor”.

  3. i agree with aaron that we should help other people because they are people.

  4. being a person, however, does not mean that you “deserve” anyone’s help. if anything, it’s the other way around: being a person means you have a responsibility to help other people.

  5. helping other people does NOT ONLY mean giving them money.

therefore, i think we have a responsibility to help the poor (and occasionally the broke). how we decide to do it, however, is our freedom.

i have never turned down someone asking for help in my city. but then, i’ve never given them cash, either. i always buy them food, and sometimes will even eat a meal with them.

and aaron, i have to agree with Brett: your example was ill-conceived. when you are asking your dad for money, and he says you have to go back to school, he hasn’t removed free will from the equation. you can refuse to go back to school, and he can refuse to give you money. he owes you nothing. and you aren’t actually controlled by him.

turn your equation around. when your son asks you for money, because he’s in debt and doesn’t have money for beer and prostitutes…will you give it to him? and how much? and for how long? somehow it seems you’d draw a line somewhere. at some point you’ll look at your kid and say “get a job, i’m not supporting you anymore”. is that “controlling” his life? or is that simply being an adult?

posted by nic on April 20, 2008 #

“I never give money to those people,” she said. “They’re only going to spend it on drugs, anyway.” And what’s so wrong with that?, I wondered.

Could you seriously give a defense of a homeless person begging 20 dollars over the course of a day and then spending it all on heroin as a sensible or good use of the time or money of any of the people involved. Under what value system is that a good outcome?

posted by Thomas David Baker on April 20, 2008 #

Can you seriously give a defense of a banking CEO giving himself a multi-million dollar salary and spending it on yachts as a sensible or good use of the time or money of any of the people involved? There are lots of things people do with money that are probably less than ideal, but I don’t get to tell them how to live their lives.

posted by Aaron Swartz on April 20, 2008 #


I think Mr. Baker asked a straightforward question and you completely dodged it. I’d love to know about a banking CEO that “giv[es] himself a multi-million dollar salary” but that is off-topic.

Is control such a bad thing? Imposing control on some homeless people sounds like a great idea to many people. At least let them confront their addictions/mental issues, which are the overwhelming problems confronting the homeless, before you let them continue their negative patterns under their ‘free will.’

What is so horrible about control in general? Sure, there are a number of parties I would not want controlling me. There is nothing immoral about subsidizing an activity with some expectations or strings attached. If you disagree, I expect you would percieve everyone as immoral which you seem to anyway.

posted by Jeremy Corbett on April 21, 2008 #

I recently had a similar conversation with some friends. I’m kind of with Aaron on this one—I don’t base my decision on what I think a beggar will use money for; I spend money on alcohol, so why shouldn’t he? My problem with beggars is that they aren’t producing anything valuable, so I don’t think they deserve my money.

I don’t give money to people who simply ask for money, but I will almost always drop a dollar in someone’s hat who’s singing a good song. I feel like he’s earned it by lifting my spirit with a song.

posted by Kortina on April 21, 2008 #

(Wish I had read your last post before this one before I posted my comment on this post.)

posted by Kortina on April 21, 2008 #

Hmm. I quite felt my dad was correct to say that sort of thing, while I feel differently about people who ask me for money around the courthouse.

I guess I felt my dad had some responsibility which meant some right to attempt to use moral suasion, and I trusted my dad.

I don’t expect a guy who is asking me for money to trust me and I don’t feel that responsible for him.

I’ll have to think more. Am I enabling or not? I hope not, but I think about it. Can’t help myself though. There is the hope it will help if I give money, just as when I’ve donated time at shelters to serve food. One hopes.

posted by Stephen M (Ethesis) on April 21, 2008 #


I live in Chicago and we have a newspaper that is sold by homeless people looking to get back on their feet. I buy the paper weekly.

However, what would be the best gift to give to these folks? Is it money, is it volunteering at a shelter? How can we change the dynamic? Should we?

posted by Ziad on April 23, 2008 #

“what would be the best gift to give to these folks?”

Why not give them all the gifts you can? I’m not sure what day-to-day part-of-your-job interactions programmers have with the poor, I suspect it’s not much. As an officer in the Navy, many of my sailors’ families qualified for food stamps. They are a hardy bunch but often at risk of loosing their housing. They didn’t have good role models, in fact they often were surrounded by horrible role models. Molestors, drunks, abandoners. Quitters, jailhouse thugs, and the mentally disabled. The mentally disabled may be good people, but they’re bad role models if for no other reason than they are simply not emotionally consistent, reliable, predictable.

As a medical student, I’ve seen the poor at their lowest. The mentally disabled at their worst: lying, seductive, violent, desperate, confused, fractured — “floridly psychotic” they call it. One man gouged out his sister’s eye for ‘talking back’ to him while he was raving in the street. He’s schizoaffective. He didn’t know. He sells himself as a male prostitute to get money, a trade he learned in jail. But his sister is now also traumatized for life, and her children will no doubt be scarred emotionally, desperately wary of men, mental illness, or both. I’ve seen a 40-year-old man come in to the ER to look over his 73-year-old mother who’s somnolent and bleeding internally from dead bowel, the arteries clamped off for hours by the vasoconstrictive effect of cocaine. I’ve seen a former Senate staffer turned schizoaffective. Why? Chance. Dormant genetics. Not her fault. Struck down from the seat of power at 35.

The ones that break my heart are the vets. I’d like to know how many scruffy middle-aged men on street corners with cardboard “vet” signs are actually vets. I suspect most of them are. These were perfectly healthy and intelligent people before something devastated them, mentally, physically, spiritually. Many are ‘travellers’: emotionally disturbed, never treated, they wore out their families and were abandoned by the ones they loved. Their wives abandoned them to care for their children and they simply couldn’t care for an apparently permanently broken husband as well. They roam from bed to bed, city to city. They favor the grain cars on trains: the long bucket-like cars have welded reinforcements at the ends where the bucket wedges inward at the bottom. The reinforcements form a cave-like structure with a little porch.

But before they wandered, before they were abandoned, they’re wrecked psyches made them terrible role models for those children. Who then either sort it out or don’t. The outcome probably depends most on the length of exposure.

Other vets were never abandoned by their families. They had no families. Unfit for duty, they were discharged and walked across the blue line on the curb, bag in hand. Too embarrassed or unable to go home, they wander.

Heroin is an opiate. It relieves pain. It’s a favored drug of the poor. Cocaine and meth give the user a feeling of strength, power. The power to meet their father’s expectations. The power to turn the next trick so at least they’ll make the rent. Until the money get’s spent on the next hit. Alcohol, it’s a little liquid courage to make a bold step and talk to the girl. We all experience a degree of pleasure in overcoming that little challenge. Unfortunately, it seems a number of alcoholics may actually derive too much pleasure, too much dopamine. They can experience pleasure an order of magnitude greater than most of us. They don’t know that. You don’t know that. But they quickly associate the liquid courage with the intense pleasurable dopamine payoff, and take to it like fish, with all the expected terrible other consequences.

Somewhere in society there is a shift from goods begetting goods to problems begetting problems. The people have so many problems, there’s no point in fixing the first one, like a car with too many dents to fix. Children who are born into these broken homes and escape are in a very real way lucky: the random events in their lives added up to shape their decision-making process and early actions in such a way that they accidentally fall across the divide and begin to be net contributors. It is little wonder some of them are revolted by their past and rail against poverty and the poor work ethic of the poor. But it’s hard to appreciate the flip-side: that they’re the one car that got out of the wrecker derby unscathed. The rest are too dented.

Keep in mind, people don’t generally live on the street for years. Not truly on the street. Those who run out their welcome at every half-way house, every shelter, they die.

On the flip side, there is also a significant value to each of us taking action. In time, money, quantity, quality, adding something to these people’s lives. People turn themselves around. They do. Believe it or not, beggars may be on their way up. These are people who, through mental illness, lack of education, lack of mental capacity, or their own past poor choices are likely living moment to moment. They’ve been forced to admit, probably in the last minute, and maybe 60 times in the last hour, that they have nothing and no way of bootstrapping themselves to even the faintest of goals without some minimum amount of money. At that moment, the moment you are before them, they’re not getting high enough to do the next deed. They’re not sleeping in the alley. They’re not beating their kids (those are probably long gone). They might be resigned, they might have been playing trumpet yesterday until they woke up this morning and found their trumpet stolen. In that moment, I’ll just about garuntee their plan is not to buy drugs or alcohol or anything except a cab to their son’s house to apologize, or to the ER to get paracentesis for their hepatitis. Or food. But they probably are practical and with it enough to realize that you might have cash, but you probably don’t have a can of Campbells in your car. And they really don’t want anyone throwing a can of Campbell at them. The coins and their feet hurt plenty enough. They might be asking for money, but in truth they’re asking for something. Anything. Please.

What value system seriously argues against charity?

Give to poor. There but for the grace of chance go you.

posted by Niels Olson on April 23, 2008 #

“Just because history has given you the power to choose whether this person can acquire certain material goods doesn’t give you the right to make that call.”

Would I be right in generalizing your comment to be, “It is immoral to use power to influence people”?

Or is that too general?

posted by Gordon McNutt on May 8, 2008 #

Your post reads like I should have to give the man money (because you say so, effectively). Now who’s being controlling? You’re entitled to your opinion as much as the next guy. However, when your opinion is no more than, “I think you ought to give money to street people”, I think you should expect flack.

Tell you what… Go find a homeless person who can’t read, and teach them to read. Because I said so. No, really. You can read, so what right do you have to let them stew in their illiteracy? And not just that one illiterate person you passed this morning — you (personally) have to teach all of them, because they all need it.

In response to “Erik”, you wrote, “You /are/ trying to control someone thru the use of your money”. And what, exactly, are you trying to do, through the use of your blog? Control others, I’d wager.

posted by Random Passerby on May 10, 2008 #

I usually don’t give money to anyone that I don’t know. I don’t give money to “charities”. Through my life I usually haven’t had a lot of money to give money to help street “beggars”, although sometimes it tugs your heart strings to see them. And from the statistics, most people a NOT mentally handicapped or drugged up. What they are is mothers with little children, veterans, people like you and I who were doing just fine one day and the next they lost the job, their marriage, their health, their house. What I do, if someone is in distress, is to lend a hand. I usually help someone (even a stranger) who is stranded with a flat tire. I have, several times, given a ride to a hitch hiker. I usually open the door for the person behind me. If a someone is depressed or has lost loved one, I linger a little to see if they need someone to listen. If a person is been overwhelmed, I have babysat for an afternoon or helped clean their house. If someone is beaten from a spouse, I listen to them and offer some counsel, or a place to stay if they seem they need that. One time a coworker was in fear of his job, so I went to the boss to try to keep his job (didn’t work). Another person, who was in pain, needed me to drive her to the doctor. I payed for the doctor’s bill because he wouldn’t see her without payment. So far, the people that I have known, most of them didn’t seem to want handouts, they just want some kindly and thoughtful advice, a job, someone to talk to, a way to “make it”, a little respect. Everything you do has an effect on someone else.

posted by kathy on June 8, 2008 #

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