24 March 2011


Last week there was an assembly at the school Mrs SB7 works at to promote some anti-poverty group.  Knowing the school system, and having sat through those sorts of things dozens of times when I was a student there, I knew even before seeing the organization website that their proposals would all be a bunch of zero-sum-fallacy, feel-good-accomplish-little, doesn't-work-but-"raises awareness" claptrap.

Putting aside my knowledge with the school system who hosted this event, and even school systems in general, I would have guessed an anti-poverty group making such a presentation would be leftward.  They own this issue, despite the fact that the measures they advocate haven't done much good over the last several decades.

I'm thinking back to the post a few days back about libertarianism and callousness:
Many people think higher minimum wages and higher tariffs and opposition to Walmart is good for the poor. I disagree with them about all these things. One possibility reason I disagree, and the one many of my friends even latch on to, is that I do not care as much as they do about the poor. The other possibility is that I care just as much as they do but disagree about the effects of these policies. I take an opposite position on all these issues specifically because I do have the same concerns for other people that they do. We just disagree about how to get from here to there.
I think what pro-market/libertarian/classical liberal/whatever types need is a very visible, vocal, anti-poverty organization of our own.  Partially to help people, of course, but also to prove to people that we care.  I think fighting the image of us as cold-hearted Scrooges would do more to get our policies listened to and accepted than would more direct advocacy.

We already push for things like free trade or immigration liberalization which reduce poverty, but we don't typically bill them as such. If I had millions and both cared about poor people and advancing libertarianism I'd be branding those efforts specifically as a way to fight poverty.  We make presentations at schools, and put ads on buses, and hand out fliers at street fairs and farmers markets, and sell those donation coupon things at grocery store check-outs, and partner with clothing stores for specially branded benefit apparel,* and all of that stuff.

(* Actually, wait.  I hate those things like the "(RED)" project.  Well, the companies that make them are alright by me, but the people who buy them rub me the wrong way.  The producers are doing good, but they can only do so by playing to people's vanity.  If you want to help, then make a donation.  If you want to help and let other people know how much you care, then go to the mall and buy the special edition shirt which proudly proclaims to the world how much you care.

[Edited to add — 24 March — I'm talking about things like this.  Hats off to them for raising so much money, but who's buying these bracelets instead of just donating the money to the end recipients?  It's not like it's hard to figure out how to get money in the Red Cross' hands. Someone help me understand why people feel good about doing this.])

Here, by the way, is David Henderson reporting on an informal poll of his colleagues about what they would do to reduce poverty around the world: part one, part two.  These are economist from the Naval Postgraduate School of varying political/ideological leanings.  None of them would give money to AID, or the World Bank, or the UN, or any foreign government.  Several recommended investing (for-profit!) rather than donating.  Has that approach ever even been mentioned at an MCPS-sponsored anti-poverty assembly?  I don't mean has it been advocated or even discussed seriously.  Has it ever been mentioned as an option?

1 comment:

  1. Joseph Epstein's book snobbery contains a discussion of moral snobbery in which he offers the following anecdote:

    "I once found myself in a mild political disagreement with a middle-aged physician. I cannot now recall the matter we argued about, but when it became apparent that, as in most political arguments, no winner was going to emerge, he said with a complacent smile, 'Oh, you may be right, but all I know is that I care deeply about people.'"

    It's perfectly true that it's not enough to have good intentions; one has to care about the effectiveness of one's actions at bringing about the intended goal. But it's also true that people who only care about their good intentions doesn't even have good intentions. If they really intended to, say, reduce poverty they would show some signs of wanting to know the most effective way to do that.