Friday, December 21, 2012

Robin Hood? Nope, Just Another Bunch of Thugs with a Good Press Agent

It has never been clear to me why the right chooses to fight about whether "we" (whatever that means) should "help" (whatever that means) the "poor." (whatever THAT means).

The two questions should be:
1.  Is it possible to help the poor?  That is, can even the best-designed program, implemented correctly, actually do anything to help the poor and to reduce poverty?

2.  Is there any reason to believe there is a substantial probability of actual politicians, the kind of people actually in the world, not in the fevered imaginations of statist zealots, will actually do anything like what is required if #1 is to be satisfied?

I think the answer to #1 is largely "no."  Attempts to give away money create rent-seeking contests that dissipate most, or all, or perhaps even more than all, the amount of resources "we" (what does that mean?) try to give away.

But the answer to #2 is clearly and robustly "no."  This is the public choice critique, in its simplest and starkest form.

Which leads me to "Munger's Law," which I use in class all the time.  It goes like this:

Start with this statement:  "The [state / government] should do XXXX, because people can't choose for themselves and I trust that the [state / government] will do a better job."

Maybe the reason that people can't choose for themselves is that they don't have the resources, so we'll use Food Stamp programs to give them more.  Or maybe people can't choose for themselves because they are too stupid and weak, so we'll have laws against drugs and prostitution.  Or maybe people can't choose because there's a collective action problem, like zoning or pollution problems.

All I ask is that the person making this statement make the following change:   "Politicians I actually know, who live in the world, should do XXXX, because people can't choose for themselves and I trust that those politicians will do a better job."

It's almost impossible for that to be true, in most cases.  People want "the state" to be in charge, but then when it's George W. Bush they say, "Oh, I didn't mean HIM."  People want "the state" to control policy, but when politicians support Amendment One (banning gay marriage in NC) we hear, "Not that!  That's not what we wanted!"

How about taking from the rich and giving to the poor?  Should the state be Robbing Hood?  Can the state be expected to do that?  Well, you get reelected by appealing to....the very poor, right?  No, you get eleected by appealing to the very MIDDLE.

I give you (courtesy of WH) ....Milton Friedman and "Director's Law."

Think that's wrong?  Our Prez threatened to veto "Plan B" NOT because it did too little for the poor, but because it imposed ANY cost on the middle class.  You give things to the middle class, if you want to get elected.  You don't give to the poor.  That's nonsense.  What politicians do is pester the bejeezus out of the poor, and shovel cash to the middle class.  That's electoral politics; it couldn't be any other way.


Dirty Davey said...

For the record, when willing to commit the resources, the government can be very successful at helping the poor. Specifically, Social Security has greatly reduced the poverty rate among those 65 years old and older.

Anonymous said...

At least until Social Security is insolvent or all the wealth of the senior citizens is inflated away. What did PT Barnum say?