CAN GOVERNMENTS PREVENT POVERTY?
By William Urban
A couple years ago I was sent an essay by Paul Krugman, a liberal economist who believes that the federal government should have such extensive control over the economy that it can not only prevent depressions but also re-distribute income in ways that eliminate poverty. His view, often expressed in op-ed pieces in the New York Times, is that this is easily done, once the right (i.e., left) political party gets into power and puts its policies into practice.
My reaction was disbelief. But then I remembered it was Paul Krugman, a Democratic party flak who lives in a parallel universe where individuals, business and even the climate cooperate with well-meant regulations that protect the people and the environment.
My experience is that poverty can exist under government control, too. China had widespread starvation under Mao and an incredible level of poverty. Eliminating the state dominated system has reduced the number of those living in poverty to less than 30%, and that figure is eroding swiftly. But for a worse example, look at North Korea. Or Native American reservations.
As for the environment, I remember my visit to Poland in 1973. We were on the Vistula at a place where a huge pipe was pouring a red liquid into the river. I asked about pollution control and was told (in all seriousness, I think) that the People’s government would not allow anything that harmed the interests of the people. It was even worse in East Germany. On one visit to Berlin I experienced pollution drifting in from East German factories so bad that children and the elderly were required to stay indoors. As for the United States, there is the proverbial saying, “I am from the government and I’m here to help.”
Of course, there are many government employees, even those called bureaucrats, who sincerely desire to help. But how many of us can say that sentence without some sort of smile crossing our face?
Mexico’s government-sponsored education system makes ours look incredibly efficient. Everyone who can afford private schools sends their children there. A lot like Washington DC, except that DC has a lot of money to spend per child. And occasional mayors of Washington may be corrupt, but they don’t try to steal the national election.
My recommendation is that we find out what works best in one area at a given time and stick to it until it seems wise to change, but to be ready to consider other approaches. A variety of experiments, even if some are politically driven, is not a bad thing (except that the taxpayers have to pay for it directly or in the form of regulations and red tape). The alternative is central direction by a handful of capitalists, commissars or bureaucrats. There is no science to this, or relatively little. We need to practice the Political Arts.
I have read a lot of Klugman. His ideas were probably very applicable once, but Roosevelt has been dead a long time. On the other hand, Roosevelt ran against Hoover on a balanced-budget platform! Once in office, he realized that this would not work. He then changed his approach completely, encouraging experimentation, even experiments that were at odds with one another. Some of his programs (some actually Hoover’s) may have slowed our recovery from the Great Depression, but they were marvelous for national morale (for most people, though many disliked everything Roosevelt did). My worry is that if what we have done is the best we can do, we have some insoluble problems.
Roosevelt made his people compete to see who could come up with new ideas fastest. The results weren’t always the best, but they were politically and economically possible. I think he would have been first to look for new programs today, even some of the privatization initiatives. When the New Deal became the Old Deal, he would have tried something else. Maybe everything else.
Alternatively, we can do what is proven to work best: to get the government out of people’s way. Often enough positive change comes in spite of bureaucratic efforts to do what is best. Governments are clumsy creatures, run by people whose first instinct is to cover their butts against criticism. Can you imagine watching them run?
Who would you rather have managing Microsoft? Bill Gates or FEMA? It wasn’t too long ago that the Clinton administration wanted to break Microsoft up. How Klugmanesk!
You may not have heard of Klugman before, but chances are good that he will hold an important position in the next democratic president’s administration. And remember, he means well.