"It profits me but little that a vigilant authority always protects the tranquillity of my pleasures and constantly averts all dangers from my path, without my care or concern, if this same authority is the absolute master of my liberty and my life."

--Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Great Society and the Endless War on Poverty

The Great Society or War on Poverty begun under the Johnson administration reaches its 50th anniversary this week.   How have we done for the trillions we've spent?

Not so good.   To me the downward trajectory before the 1960s makes sense... America was the industrial leader of the world after World War II, and millions left the crushing poverty of rural life for jobs in the factories of mostly northern cities.   But the flattening out after the 1960s does not make sense.   The trillions we have spent on public education ought to have yielded better dividends, shouldn't they?   The increasing mobility of our population ought to mean that people find it easier to escape poverty... get on a bus and go where the jobs are!   Over the last twenty years, the increasing access to information ought to mean that finding out about available jobs would be easier... in economic terms, the "transaction costs" for finding a job should have gone way down.   So why the failure of the Great Society programs to "cure" poverty?

I think there are two explanations.   One is somewhat hopeful, the other is more pessimistice.

First, I think that liberalism itself, for all of its good intentions (if we grant them), actually creates conditions that lead to poverty.   Aid to single mothers leads to the erosion of the family.   No-fault divorce leads to the erosion of the family.   The sexual revolution leads to the erosion of the family.   And... not incidentally.... the increasingly burdensome regulatory state makes it more and more difficult for working-class men to find manufacturing jobs that pay wages enabling them to support families.    Poverty persists because, not despite, the presence of federal and state welfare programs and the ethos of liberalism.

So, theoretically, if you could (a) enact policies encouraging family formation; and (b) deregulate the economy so as to encourage manufacturing and the jobs it would bring, then theoretically you could reverse the trend and begin again reducing poverty.   Hence the optimism.

Now for the pessimism.   When I look at America I see the most wildly affluent society in human history.   If poverty could be reduced to a minimum anywhere, it ought to be here.   Which leads to my pessimistic question... is there a floor below which you simply can't reduce poverty?   Is poverty for at least a certain percentage -- the mentally ill, the intellectually feeble, the physically disabled, the indigent elderly -- inevitable?

Sadly, I think that's probably the case.   Consider the standard IQ distribution:

In this standard graph, there are approximately 25% whose IQs are below 90.   That's roughly 50 million adult Americans.   Leave out the disabled or mentally ill... there are still tens of millions of Americans who are essentially intellectually incapable of holding down jobs that require much more than assembly or manual labor.   That is a sad truth, perhaps, but it is still at truth.    And, of course, in modern America we have increasingly created a regulatory state that makes creating those kinds of jobs more and more difficult.  
What conclusions should we draw?   Two, I think.   First, the Great Society is a failure.   The War on Poverty is a failure.   And they are failures precisely because they refused to grapple with the fundamental unchangeable nature of actual human beings.  
That should be a chastening lesson for liberals, if they were willing to engage in self-examination.
Second, the reality that differences in ability, sheer native intelligence, leads to disparities in wealth, should also be a chastening lesson for conservatives.   We can talk about the efficacy of a free market as a rising tide that lifts all boats, but it's also reality that a rising tide also means that some will swim and some will sink.   The free market is a good thing, and increases wealth for a nation, as Adam Smith said it would 238 years ago.    But conservatives should also go back and read Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments.   If we are going to have a free market, as Christians we must also acknowledge that we are going to have to develop and refine our moral senses so that we can expand our charity for those who are less fortunate.   As conservatives we want that to be private charity, not charity filtered through the rent-seekers of government.   But we have to put our money (and our time and our energy and our creativity and our love) where our mouths are.
Just some quick lunch-time thoughts.

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