Robin Hood Myth

Government welfare programs support the poor at the expense of the rich  — most would think. Economist Milton Friedman called this the Robin Hood Myth. He cites state-funded higher education as an example, pointing out that it’s often people from higher-middle class families who benefit the most, while low-income taxpayers end up paying for their education. What are you thinking? Was he right?

robin hood myth
Robin Hood Myth intro

Government programs benefit the poor at the expense of the rich. Those are the terms on which many public welfare programs are sold. But is that really the case? The economist Milton Friedman doesn’t think so and called this the Robin Hood myth.

the full story
Freidman opinion

Friedman argued that instead of taking from the rich to help the poor, most welfare programs benefit the middle-class at the expense of the very poor and the very rich. This happens because of a simple rule, known as Director‘s law.

Director’s law
Director law

In a democratic system, laws are passed by 51 percent of the people voting one way against 49 percent of the people voting another. You might think the bottom 51 percent will pass laws at the expense of the top 49 percent, but that is rarely the case. Directors law implies that the bottom 51 percent tend to not only be less fortunate, but also less likely to have the ability to organize themselves and be politically successful.

The top 51 percent are able to use their power to control politics. But they are, by definition, also most comfortable with how things are and hence often the last to seek political change. The most effective people in political activity are running from the lower middle class through the upper-middle class. They are the people who are literate, who write the news, who envy the very rich, and who seek political change. And what kind of policies do they want? Welfare programs for themselves.

state-financed higher education facts
State financed higher education

One famous policy that runs throughout almost all democratic societies is state-financed higher education. It is sold on the grounds of providing equal opportunities to everybody to get an education. But what are the facts? Who is really benefiting? Who are the people who are attending public universities? 

RHM conclusion

It’s usually people who come from the middle, and upper-class families. Occasionally there is someone from a lower-class family, but that’s a small fraction Children from middle and upper-income families often attend public education for the longest periods, gaining new skills and building strong networks that enable them to get higher-paying jobs.

The taxpayers pay for it, including parents from the bottom of the income distribution whose children are unlikely to attend college and in the rare instance that they do so, often drop out. Friedmann called state-financed higher education a program to impose taxes on the people in Watts to send the children from Beverly Hills to college.

What do you think?
RHM What do you think

What are your thoughts? Was Friedmann right? And if so, what’s a good alternative to help create equal opportunities in a democracy? Share your thoughts in the comments below and read the description for more information about Friedmann and our work.


Dig deeper!

Classroom activity

In the following activity students will learn something about the Robin Hood myth and Director’s law. 

  • Ask the class who they think benefits most from government welfare programs.
  • Watch the Sprouts video on the Robin Hood myth in class.
  • Share the following findings with the class: In the latest US elections, it has been shown that people who hold college degrees tend to be more favorable to social measures such as free education. Highly educated individuals are also more likely to vote than people without a college degree
  • Then debate on how these factors may change or affect Friedman’s theory. 
  • Ask the class how other factors may weigh in the choice of social measures being taken by governments such as lobbies (guns, tobacco) or demonstrations (black lives matter). 
  • Following this, ask the class if they think Friedman’s theory can be applied to modern politics, what it can be used for, and what are its limitations. 
  • Finally, ask the class what decisions they would make for social programs to really benefit the poor instead of being favorable to the middle class. 


  • Script: Jonas Koblin 
  • Editor: Morgan Lizop
  • Artist: Pascal Gaggelli
  • Voice: Matt Abbott
  • Coloring: Nalin
  • Editing: Peera Lertsukittipongsa
  • Production: Selina Bador
  • Sound Design: Miguel Ojeda
  • Fact Checking: Ludovico Saint Amour di Chanaz

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