Friday, May 04, 2007

A Capital Notion

In casual, water cooler debate, the proposition most derided by leftists is this: Conservatives want to help the poor. Progressives typically assume that opponents of income redistribution favor the free market because it benefits the wealthy. They imagine they know right-of-center motivations, and presume the worst--as SC&A says, "demonizing those who disagree with them."

This trope also confuses methods with outcomes. There's no shame in sticking with what works. And capitalism works, even without a Cabinet Department of Handouts, as Arnold Kling writes in TechCentralStation:
If you look at poverty from the broad perspective of international and historical comparisons, the solution to poverty is decentralized entrepreneurial activity under capitalism.

The capitalist solution to poverty is unsatisfying to many people, because it is not planned or intended. Policymakers and anti-poverty programs per se are not involved. . .

Ironically, the biggest factor retarding the capitalist solution to poverty may well be the crusade to end poverty using conscious planning. Certainly if one includes among the planned solutions to poverty the experiment with Communism (and I see no reason why it ought to be excluded), then the case against intentional anti-poverty efforts is rather compelling. Simply compare poverty in North Korea with that in South Korea, for example.

William Easterly, in The White Mans' Burden, draws a sharp distinction between searchers and planners and international development. Searchers, who operate in a decentralized, trial-and-error manner, help reduce poverty. Planners at development agencies such as the World Bank, who operate in a centralized, paternalistic manner, do not.

How can advocates like the Center for American Progress persist in proposing centralized, planned solutions for poverty? I think that the key to maintaining faith in these ideas is to focus only on intentions. If a program is intended to reduce poverty, then it is an anti-poverty program. Instead, I believe that anyone who sincerely wants to do something about poverty needs to focus on outcomes.
And the outcomes are clear--the percentage of American families in poverty has been halved in my lifetime, and even the poor are better off today than ever before.

Unlike the left, I don't doubt the motives of most on the opposite side. Still, like Kling, I wonder why they overlook consequences:
The intentions of the anti-poverty crusaders are good. However, the results of centrally-planned anti-poverty efforts are small, and perhaps negative (certainly very negative in the case of Communism). Decentralized capitalism, in which no one sets out to broadly reduce poverty, is the best anti-poverty program.
America's morality and wealth fully warrants a safety net, funded at taxpayer expense. But the swiftest and surest path from poverty is the secure liberty to seize opportunity. That's why our fathers, mothers and grandparents moved here.

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