Let Them Buy Whatever They Want

I am frankly exhausted with all the stories of people buying item X with food stamps that some folks fear they really should not be buying, where X is everything from liquor to twinkies.

People are either adults or they are not.  I don't think our act of charity towards them gives us the right to be their mother.  I am all for consolidating all the zillions of existing niche government benefits programs into one single EITC or similar income-floor program.  Then people spend their money however they hell they want -- if they screw up and spend on unwise things, well that is their business.

I used to have this argument all the time with my New England liberal mother-in-law.  Interestingly, in this argument, we would both call the other arrogant.  I would say she was arrogant for assuming she knew better than other adults how they should spend their own money.  She would call me arrogant for assuming that people without my background and education could make quality decisions for themselves.

Since this is my blog, I will grab the last word here.  If we were talking about having the poor choose between a number of exchange-traded derivatives, I could concede her point.  But we are essentially talking about what to buy in a supermarket.  We force everyone through 12 years of public education.  The Left pretty much gets to determine what that education encompasses.  If adults are leaving that system and still can't be trusted with their own money, then why are we even bothering?


  1. Georg Thomas:

    "The Left pretty much gets to determine what that education encompasses."

    Little wonder, when the libertarian "right" despises political engagement and the use of politics and state to achieve its goals. Libertarians simply refuse to acknowledge that there is something like the modern public. Hence, libertarianism is politically self-eliminating. For more see


  2. Onlooker from Troy:

    "She would call me arrogant for assuming that people without my
    background and education could make quality decisions for themselves."

    How in the hell is that arrogance? Typical leftist "thinking" (that has no resemblance to actual thinking).

  3. mostly cajun:

    The only problem is that the EBT card and the SNAP funds fall into the hands of a parent who is supposedly responsible enough to use those funds to make sure that their crotchfruit are adequately nutritioned and garbed. Three-meal-a-day school meal programs (including wekends and summers) tell us the first is not done, and all you have to do to verify the status of the second is drive through (armored vehicle is highly recommended if you're incorrectly hued) one of the 'low-income' (make that NO income) housing projects to see the baby mamas sporting designer nails and weaves and the baby daddies wearing $300 Air Whatevers while the crotchfruit are wearing whatever Goodwill gave away last week.

  4. William Woody:

    I always found this idea that somehow unless you have the right education and background, that you are incapable of making quality decisions for yourself, so we must tell you how to spend your money (even money we give people on welfare) an extremely repugnant idea. I'm glad I'm not alone.

  5. mx:

    Well said. There's no problem if a SNAP recipient wants to buy lobster or steak (and steak can mean basically anything from the cheapest cut of beef to crazy-expensive meat flown in from Japan). No matter what they buy, they get a fixed amount a month, and it's not a whole lot of money. If someone blows through it on a few expensive meals, they ought to have the self-preservationary instinct to avoid that mistake next month (and can hopefully scrape up enough ramen and food bank materials for sustenance in the meantime).

    Also, I see no evidence that restricting food stamp purchases would save the government much if any money. Do you really think many competent recipients would let their benefits go to waste if they couldn't buy soda or steak or other prohibited items? Surely they'd realize that money is fungible and just buy those items themselves, as SNAP recipients generally buy at least some of their monthly food out of their own pockets too (by design, that's the "Supplemental" in SNAP). It would also impose a huge burden on grocery store owners to have to classify every item as allowed or prohibited (see also the mess that is WIC). A number of stores, especially smaller more convenient ones, might choose to stop accepting SNAP at all rather than reconfigure their registers to comply.

  6. lemet9:

    Libertarianism takes many forms, but "political engagement and the use of politics and state to achieve its goals" is just a fancy way of saying you are willing to kill to get people to do what you what. I believe this is what most if not all libertarians are against.

  7. joe:

    Back in my undergraduate days, I took a number of economic classes covering classical economics, supply and demand curves, etc. Even the liberal professors acknowledged the bad long term effects of rent controls, welfare, minimum wages, etc.
    One of the items discussed was far more economically efficient for the recipient to provide straight cash instead of food stamps which were limited to purchasing food. The primary basis for the inefficiency was the limitation on what the recipient could spent his scarce resources.

    The creation and expansion of a permanent dependancy class of people is an issue that should be addressed separately

  8. J_W_W:

    I'll be all for the feds not meddling with what people on food stamps can buy as soon as they stop telling my local school district what types of food they must serve.

  9. skhpcola:

    I would say she was arrogant for assuming she knew better than other adults how they should spend their own money.

    Heh. "Their own money." *eyeroll*

  10. texasjimbo:

    We stop treating them as adults the minute we let them get on welfare (which is NOT the same thing as charity). Not only should there be limits on how they spend the voucher, they should loose some of the other rights/privilages of adulthood, such as voting.

  11. J Calvert:

    Long term poverty is caused by people making poor choices. Limiting choices =/= good choices. They'll just buy the $4 gallon of milk, sell it for $2 cash and spend the $2 on soda. All this would do is make the poor choice even more expensive.

  12. texasjimbo:

    Its not their money and they have already clearly demonstrated that they can not make good decisions when they went on welfare.

  13. Incunabulum:

    It doesn't save *any* money.

    What it does is provide an incentive to exchange foodstamps for cash - often at horrible rates.

    Where I live, I have been approached a couple of times with an offer to pay for my groceries (with that persons foodstamps) and repay her with a fraction of the total (usually between 50-75%) in cash.

  14. Incunabulum:

    Getting rid of foodstamp restrictions - even to the point of not limiting it to *food* - would say us a huge amount of money just by getting rid of the control structure. No more people debating whether or not you should be able to pay with foodstamps for a frozen pizza, or if it becomes ineligible if the store provides it heated but not if the customer microwaves it in the store themselves.

    Theologians discussing how many angels can fit on the head of a pin are more productive.

    We could save ourselves a lot of money while still providing the same level of benefits simply by expanding the 0% tax bracket and instituting a CBI.

  15. Incunabulum:

    Yeah - if we were to do that, we would cease to *be* libertarians.

  16. Rick Caird:

    And that is a bad thing, why? When the cost goes up, the demand goes down. Basic economics.

  17. DirtyJobsGuy:

    It's simply that the "safety net" value is set too high (much like the prevailing wage in construction). In NYC last year the NY Post has a story about how people would buy up staples with their EBT cards, then go next store to buy a blue plastic 40 gallon barrel and ship the stuff to relations in the Dominican Republic. Their relatives would then sell these for a good markup. From this we can infer a number of things:
    1. Lots of people in NYC make pretty good money without needing the EBT (and it's an expensive town).
    2. If you can buy the inventory for free, then pack and ship to the Caribbean for resale a nice arbitrage can be done.
    3. The opportunities for graft are endless.
    The whole food stamp program was a screwball way of using up government buyups of staple food items to support FDR's reinflation program. Hidden under a nutrition banner, it helped make farm transfer payments look better.

  18. Phillip:

    In Australia the concern is that welfare payments are used to buy alcohol and drugs.

  19. mx:

    What a horrible idea. You want to tell people who have fallen into misfortune, perhaps through no fault of their own, to starve or give up their right to vote?

  20. ErikEssig:

    I'm with Warren on this.

  21. sjutte350:

    Can you understand the conflict of interest that may occur when a person receiving government largesse also has the franchise?

    As far as I'm concerned, a person that has fallen to the point that they require their fellow citizens to support them would be a very good candidate for a person that we should not trust with a vote, at least temporarily.

    Want your vote back? Work hard, get off the dole, and it's yours. I think that's a very reasonable, logical, and ethical trade off. It's not a punishment. Just a way to eliminate conflict of interest inherent in voting for a government that gives you your very sustenance to survive.

  22. sjutte350:


  23. William Woody:

    Years ago I was sitting in a food court at a local mall grabbing a bite to eat. Next to me an old man was sitting there eating lunch, and nearby two adults were leading through a small group of mentally challenged teenagers as they went shopping in the mall. The old man sitting next to me turned to me and said that he couldn't believe that they would bring "those people" into the mall with the rest of us.

    I replied "I graduated from the California Institute of Technology with a degree in mathematics. The difference between my IQ and yours is undoubtedly as great as the IQ between yours and theirs, yet I put up with you being here."

    Who is it for you to say that your own decisions are "good decisions?" Who is it to say that some snot-nosed kid whose only advantage in life was wealthy parents and a good inheritance made "good decisions?" And who is it for us to say that someone on welfare has somehow failed to make "good decisions?"

    Who's to say your own life choices aren't seen as inferior and wanting by someone whose IQ or wisdom or life skills are greater than yours? And given the prevalent attitude of many on the the left and some on the right that what you earn isn't necessarily yours--that you didn't build that--why shouldn't this idea that those who are somehow "smarter" than you shouldn't have a say in how you spend your money? After all, isn't that what motivated folks in New York to want to limit soft drink sizes?

    Yes, I understand from a practical perspective that a certain amount of aid given to the poor should be reserved for nutritious food, if only because you don't want to reach the end of the month and discover you have nothing left to eat.

    But this idea that somehow a group of people--even those asking for welfare--have immediately proven that they cannot make good decisions, thus other people must make their decisions for them--strikes me as horribly paternalistic, arrogant, and rather stupid.

  24. sjutte350:

    I always took a perverse delight in TJIC's solution to hunger. Once a week, have a robot extrude a gray, tasteless, 22,000 calorie "subsistence bar" along with an exhortation to "make it last all week."

    It would solve the problem, but of course such a thing is pretty inhumane.

    I'll leave it to you to decide if "inhumane" is ok in this instance, or not.

  25. bigmaq1980:

    Bravo! Been making the same argument for a long time - consolidate all programs into one.

    We probably could give MORE money by the cost savings from the bureaucratic reduction.

    Still prefer Friedman's idea of a negative income tax (i.e. there is no disincentive to earning money, as they can net more in total) - a healthy incentive to get off the dole.

  26. mx:

    But how is that conflict of interest any different from the same one a non-benefit receiving voter has when they go to the polls? We'd all like to vote our way to lower taxes, either because someone else will be paying more or someone else will receive fewer services (excepting the elimination of government waste, which I'm surely not arguing against).

    For instance, as a single childless renter with a decent income, I pay a lot in taxes. I might want to vote for a candidate who will make my rent tax deductible and eliminate the home mortgage interest deduction (nevermind that I might buy a home myself some day). Is that any different from a SNAP-recipient going to the polls to vote for his self-interest?

    Logically, I suppose your plan should prohibit seniors who receive Social Security or Medicare from voting. Similarly, shouldn't service members in our armed forces should be banned from voting, given their obvious conflict of interest to vote themselves a pay raise, better working conditions ("weekends off from war!") or benefits?

    We all give and take certain things to/from the government at various points our lives. Where does the conflict of interest end? Is it a conflict of interest to vote when you have a driver's license, as roads are paid for with government funds? What about if you ride mass transit, which is subsidized? Should I be banned from voting because I received a free tour of the state capital last month? What if the tour was last year?

    Finally, your statement "Work hard, get off the dole, and it's yours" implies that hard work is all that is needed. If you looked around, you'd find countless examples of people receiving government benefits who work phenomenally hard every day at multiple jobs just to provide for their families.

    p.s. If this conflict of interest is such a real problem, then why do richer people vote at far higher rates than poorer people?

  27. texasjimbo:

    Rather transparently, if they (under many circumstances) have to resort to welfare to meet their basic needs in a country with as much opportunity and prosperity as ours, then they are either bad decision makers or free loaders and as such, are not morally entitled to be treated as an adult. My right to judge them is based in part on the fact that I pay taxes, in part (even if I didn't pay taxes) and the fact that I am adversely affected by their decisions/freeloading AND that they are taking public money and the fact that I, unlike you am capable of making sound moral judgments. The snot nosed child of wealthy parents isn't getting welfare benefits, so they're not relevant to this issue.

  28. Ugasailor:

    I can agree in part - IF - the U.S. Guvmint changes the name of the program from "Supplemental Nutritional Assistance" to "Buy Anything you F'in' Want" program. Congress votes on the name change and it is publicized. It is fairly clear that once were considered reasonable food purchases to help people are now something entirely different; aka ATMS in Strip Clubs and Dope Shops. I should subsidize these?

  29. texasjimbo:

    If you were accurately describing a large portion of the people who are on welfare, you might have a point. You're not. Most people on welfare fall into one of several categories: 1.lazy (would rather live off of other people than work); 2. (closely related) too picky about what job they'll work (looking for a position rather than a job); 3. Working but using welfare to subsidize their lifestyle (above basic food, shelter, clothing, and transportation; ie, freeloading); have psychological/substance issues. Nobody in any of those groups deserve to have the full rights of an adult as long as they are taking welfare. If they want to vote, get a job/another job or quit taking the subsidy so that they can have nicer housing.

  30. texasjimbo:

    SS and Medicare are not welfare, as they are (in theory) user fiancied (the reality is different, and that's why they need radical reform). You premise assumes the government has a moral claim to an individual's resources for non-common benefits. I reject that notion, and I want almost all government services/goods except law enforcement and national defense to be user paid.

  31. sjutte350:

    My voting for the government to take less from me is not the same as someone voting to take more. I won't explain why, I think you probably understand that. (Just in case... me voting to keep what I earned is not equal to a welfare recipient voting to take more of it away...)

    As for people on the dole, you pretty much summed it up. ANYONE who net for net takes more from the government than they pay to it should lose the franchise. Yes, I understand that means most retirees won't have it. Given that the selfishness of our current crop of retirees is what got us to this point in the first place, you'll forgive me if I don't cry quarts.

    Recall if you will that the franchise was never intended to be universal. Pretty much every founding father saw the inherent danger and folly in thst.

    Pity that their qualifications back then we're so racist and misogynist, but the point still stands: universal suffrage is a destructive concept.

    Responsibility should be required to be proven, and while certainly not a perfect metric, I think that the ability to support oneself financially is a great place to start.

  32. sjutte350:

    As they currently sit, social security and Medicare are EXACTLY welfare. Unless you stop payments after original principal plus a reasonable rate of return on investment are exhausted...

    ...which they dont. As I recall, my grandfather and grandmother received the entire amount they'd paid in in the first ten or fifteen years of their 40 year retirement.

  33. sjutte350:

    You are now. Embrace the suck.

    At least this way, they'd be honest about it.

  34. texasjimbo:

    First of all, you wouldn't like how I would reform them, so you really don't want to push this point. They are pyramid schemes; they are badly managed and poorly conceived pension plans, but they are not welfare, as one has to work and contribute to them in order to be eligible. That is not the case for welfare. Furthermore, at the current contribution rate 13% and how well the stock market has done over the last 30 years, you're just flat out wrong. A private pension would pay out more generous benefits for many. You stat for your grandparents, even if correct, is probably based on nominal dollar values for their contributions.

  35. sjutte350:

    Why would you assume that I wouldn't like your fix? I'm all for privatization, and agree with every point you made with the exception of people not taking out more than they put in. Some, yes, but not all.

    I think you think I'm mx replying to above, but I'm not.

  36. sjutte350:

    Catch 22, ain't it?

  37. Roy_Lofquist:

    Consolidation? Never gonna happen. As Glenn Reynolds would say: No enough opportunity for graft.

  38. Don:


    I'm going to have to take exception to the misuse of the word "charity" here. Charity is when I go to my church, the United Way, or the food bank and write them a check of my own free will, not when somebody points a gun at me and says that I must give them my money so they can decide how best to spend it for mine and others' benefit.

    Taxation is theft the fact that it is legalized is purely semantic but under no stretch of the imagination does it classify as "charity". Taxation is the worst possible way to spend money (I learned that first hand as a State employee!), it is the least optimal way to provide "charity", and it is the most destructive force in American politics today.

  39. mx:

    Or, just spitballing here, you might be vastly overestimating how much opportunity our country offers to everyone.

  40. mx:

    I forgot to mention this example (actually, I wrote it and then the browser crashed, but nevermind). What about members of our armed forces? Surely they shouldn't have the vote under your system. After all, they have a huge conflict of interest because they could presumably vote themselves better pay, working conditions ("no war on the weekends!") or benefits.

  41. Daniel Barger:

    Adults have the right to spend 'their money' anyway they like. But welfare recipients are spending MY ( and other taxpayers) money. Therefore the idea that they can do what they want is specious and false. If someone is given money for an express purpose.....as in to buy healthy nutritious food and instead uses that money to buy alcohol, junk food and other garbage then whoever is handing out that money has not only the RIGHT but the OBLIGATION to force the recipient to either abide by the
    intended goals of program or DO WITHOUT. Same reason I don't hand cash to 'homeless and hungry' beggars....because they rarely use it for food....they invariably use it to get drunk or high.

  42. obloodyhell:

    As far as I am concerned, you're right... they can buy whatever they want with the money they get.

    BUT.... If they're buying Ben and Jerry's ice cream... Then they're getting too much money.

    That is my sole objection. "Charity" doesn't mean living better off than *I* do.

  43. obloodyhell:

    }}} Is that any different from a SNAP-recipient going to the polls to vote for his self-interest?

    Fuckin-A HELL YEAH.

    One is money GIVEN to them out of MY (and your) pocket.

    The other is you voting to reduce the amount the government can take AWAY from the money YOU have earned that's in your pocket.

    There's a fucking great big WORLD of difference in that.

    One is you saying what is done with YOUR money, the other is them saying they should get more of someone ELSE's money.

    Fuckin'-A DUH.

  44. slocum:

    Early SS recipients made out like bandits. They paid into the system for fewer years and at much lower rates. But already for people retiring now and on into the future, SS is not a good deal -- they won't be getting back more than they put in (Medicare, is different, though).

  45. slocum:

    Me too. Not that the recipients will make good choices about money. But bureaucrats will hardly do better and will waste a large portion of the money in administration AND, as others have pointed out, recipients will buy the crap anyway, but only after they've lost a sizable fraction of the value in dubious exchanges:

    "On the day when accounts are credited, local establishments accepting EBT cards...are swamped with locals using their public benefits to buy cases and cases — reports put the number at 30 to 40 cases for some buyers — of soda. Those cases of soda then either go on to another retailer, who buys them at 50 cents on the dollar, in effect laundering those $500 in monthly benefits into $250 in cash....Take soda off the list and there will be another fungible commodity to take its place."


  46. Noumenon72:

    Social Security and Medicare are where this logic should *really* be applied, these people get more than welfare, visibly vote for it, and are more dependent on the government than welfare recipients.

  47. Captain Profit:

    I believe you have cost mixed up with price. If you give me $4 at no cost to me, and I use it to obtain something worth $2, I still have the $2 item at no cost to me. Why would my demand decrease?

  48. marque2:

    It is forced charity. I am being forced to use my money for charity for these people, and now I am told they should be able to do what they want with it. If I give personally to a charity, I can control the money - though I'm today's environment I would be called a jerk - I could easily say, I will give you room and board as long as you go through an apprenticeship program and stay off the booze and drugs. If you don't like that don't take my money. But all of a sudden Government is just handing out money to sit on a couch all day, and I am suppose to have no say about the couchee not using my money on booze and prostitutes. It is mind baffling, that this was even posted on a libertarian blog.

  49. Jim Collins:

    No we shouldn't tell them how to spend "their" money. We should ramp up efforts to catch the ones who are "gaming" the system and prosecute them. Like the guy who uses his daughter's EBT card to buy the soda and food that he sells in his bar. How about the guy who works under the table and has his "ex-wife that he lives with collect benefits for her and his daughters. The same SOB that was showing off the boat that he just bought with his EIC money, while poking fun at me for being stupid for paying taxes.