What’s Wrong With Being Poor?
Yes, it’s a provocative question, and no, it’s definitely not the only important point which should be raised in any debate about poverty. But I do wish people like CORI would consider it some time.
If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll probably understand that I’m coming from a general perspective which views government intervention as the primary generator of poverty, without which far more people would probably choose to climb a career ladder. Government policies generally cause the exact opposite of their stated intentions, and this is no less true when it comes to poverty reduction. Unfortunately, most people seem impervious to arguments “from effect”: the intention behind a law is apparently all that counts. So if the minimum wage, labour regulations, public schools, drug prohibition and social welfare all combine to trap hundreds of thousands of people in misery, it doesn’t matter – any government would be shirking it’s moral responsibilities if it didn’t carry out these activities.
So why not question the intentions? Our reasoning should reflect the broad scope of human preference and choice. Suppose some individual, John, decides that, on balance, he isn’t interested in pursuing any kind of advanced career path. John is mentally competent, he simply values his free time and comfort more than the salary he might receive through hard work. So he doesn’t bother finishing college and instead finds jobs with very low levels of responsibility and as few hours as possible. The pay is low, and John will probably be considered poor by most other people, but he figures that he wouldn’t be happier living any other way.
Now there are some very serious questions for those who favour broad-brush governmental anti-poverty strategies. Even if it were possible (which it mostly isn’t), why would we want the government to forcibly improve John’s standard of living? Those who have engaged in more productive careers will be robbed, having their own freedom violated in order to satisfy a perceived moral imperative to prevent John from experiencing the consequences of satisfying his own desires in his own way. Should John not be entitled to make his own choices, as much as those who choose differently?
Of course, when we are talking about poverty not directly caused by the government, there is more than one kind. There are the people who take huge risks starting their own business or aiming for artistic success, only to lose everything. There are the people who suffer freak accidents, for which they are uninsured, and which lead to a serious loss of opportunity. There are criminals. There are the people who prefer a simple life. There are those who suffer a devastating marital breakdown. Some of these will be looked on kindly and given help – and if they want it, maybe even a hand up – by friends, family, or charity. Others may not.
And this is basically what’s missing in every debate about poverty. Showing no insight into the complexities of the choices open to each and every one us, anti-poverty activists use income statistics as a blunt instrument with with to shame public opinion into agreeing with ever more interventions, while the logical economic justifications for these interventions are nowhere to be found. And as long as people feel that poverty can never be a valid outcome for anyone, for any reason, it’s unlikely that they will bother looking.