Eradicating Poverty, Part 2

SOME INITIAL CONSIDERATIONS

Given that poverty is dangerous, expensive, damaging, and immoral, common sense demands that we get rid of it.  But whereas most might agree to the objective in principle, they would enumerate a number of reasons that make it impossible:

  1.     Since poverty has been with us from time immemorial, it is destined to remain so.
  2.     However desirable it might be to end poverty, the cost of doing so would be prohibitive.
  3.     Every effort in the past to reduce poverty has come to naught.  Witness the failure of President Johnson’s “war on        poverty.”  Why would any future effort fare better?
  4.     The only agency capable of eliminating poverty is government which is too large and too invasive as it is.

Right on all counts if one assumes that such an effort were limited to simply scaling up what was done in the past.  That need not be the case.  We could employ the tools we have to work with to better advantage.

THE ROLE OF GOVERNMENT

The fact is that government is simply too big, too heavy-handed, too blunt an instrument, too regulation bound, and too reliant on force to be an effective direct caregiver to poverty-stricken people every one of whom has his own individualized set of difficulties  and requirements.

Besides its inherent clumsiness, government has an even greater disadvantage as an instrumentality in the fight against poverty.  We have  anthropomorphized it and, in our imagination, bestowed upon it a veritable treasure chest of human virtues: compassion, empathy, sympathy, etc.  The reality is far different.  Like poor Dr. Frankenstein, we learn that once awakened and sent out into the world, our creation is possessed with a set of far less attractive traits than we had envisioned among them being greediness, cruelty, insensitivity, barbarity, unpredictability, and plain stupidity.

In the “war on poverty” government has introduced a profusion of agencies with overlapping—sometimes conflicting—directives, responsibilities, and regulations.  Not surprisingly, they end up in competition with one another for funding and authority resulting in confusion, disillusionment, inefficiency, and, often, hopelessness on the part of their clients.  It is reasonable to predict that even if they were provided with unlimited funding, they would institutionalize poverty rather than abolish it.  Ensconced in soup kitchens, bureaucrats in starched white uniforms would dish out bouillabaisse to longer than ever lines of monied vagrants.

This is not to say that government can be dispensed with in the effort to eradicate poverty.  Just the opposite.  As difficult and as important as it is, the goal requires that we bring to bear every social tool we have capable of creating change: charitable organizations, the free market, and, yes, when appropriate, even leviathan provided, of course, the beast is thrown back on the table, given a few more jolts of electricity, and returned to its proper state as a dehumanized, impersonal, impassive, unimpeachable, and utterly impartial public servant of whom the following characteristics could be expected:

  1. Its policies must be universally applicable.  They cannot discriminate on the grounds of race, creed, religion, economic status, or any other criteria besides the two that can be unambiguously determined: sex and age.  It must no longer be targeted to special groups but rather directed to all citizens on equal terms.
  2. Neither can government be concerned with attending to individualized needs that it is uniquely unqualified to handle such as those of the handicapped, the addicted, and the determinedly indigent.
  3. Its function must be limited to funding, policy making, and overall supervision which is to say it must never venture into the operations of programs that stem from its decisions.
  4. It must constantly monitor the impact of its programs by means of formal feedback mechanisms and continuously respond to them.
  5. To the extent possible, bottom-up, voluntary measures are to be employed in lieu of authoritarian ones.

All this may come as an affront to my empathetic friends who harbor more exalted ambitions for government.  In defense, I ask them to picture sentimentality as a lovely flowering vine gradually inching its way up the governmental tree trunk on which it clings and eventually kills.

THE ROLE OF NONPROFITS

Under the proposed scheme for eliminating poverty, charitable nonprofit organizations are given an expanded role.  If these voluntary, disparate, and  anarchic groups seem too weak to lean on for such an important task, think again.  For a number of reasons, private groups have the potential to do a better job of providing succor for the needy than public agencies.

Even under our present arrangement in which government is constantly elbowing private efforts out of the way, it is striking how privately-run charities have managed to hold their own.  Were government aid completely withdrawn, I have no doubt that charities would fill the void and do so in a superior fashion.  Jostling one another in their haste to cover unmet needs, private charities would provide a greater variety of specialized services, offer the needy a wider choice of providers, and compete to see which could do so in the most friendly, attentive way.  Moreover, protective of their limited funding, they would do a better job of screening out professional malingers compared to rule-bound bureaucracies handing out other people’s money.

Absent the crowding out of government funding, donors would be more motivated to give by the realization that their contributions were truly vital to their favorite cause.

THE ROLE OF CORPORATIONS

On a par with the liberals who see government as the ultimate answer to everything that befuddles mankind, are the conservatives who envision the free market as being rightfully entitled to that claim.  Indeed, if one had to make the difficult choice as to which one was the more mistaken, he would have to choose the latter on the grounds of greater chutzpah given that it was the free market that created the underclass to begin with.  Nevertheless, there is no question but that the free market is a dynamic force in our society, so it too is conscripted in the eradication of poverty proposed below.

 link to Part 3

 

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