Do you know what I hate about the poor? That the juxtaposition of true suffering and my own comfortable lifestyle makes me confront my own mortality and a place in a universe composed of a cruel and bitter irony. I hate that my discomfort with the poor is miniscule compared to their own discomforts and yet I’m still selfishly worried about my own feelings. I hate that my selfishness equates to enormous hypocrisy in the area of David-is-basically-a-good-person style of thinking. I hate that there’s nothing I can do to fix poverty on my own. I could beggar myself and still not make a difference, I could run for political office and lose, I could set up a charity and even if it was more wildly successful than any other charity in this history of the world I’d still only make a small dent in the levels of poverty. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that poverty is an unsolvable problem, I just don’t think the world cares enough to solve it. Including me and being confronted with my own apathy makes me uncomfortable. That’s what I hate about the poor.
What I hate worse than the poor, is poor bashing. We think of the poor as a black hole of fiscal irresponsibility, drug use, and insanity. We, ourselves, are vastly superior in comparison. Because unlike the poor, my insanity is safely medicated thank you, my fiscal responsibility carefully hidden behind a crumbling wall of credit card debt and student loans, and only the poor would ever do drugs. There’s this subtle (or not so subtle) belief that you can’t help the poor because by doing so they’ll breed. They’ll multiply like vermin requiring ever more resources to funnel into their destructive appetites. That’s Malthus. A 18th century writer who correctly identified the correlation between exponential population growth and arithmetic increase in food production. Just a bit later you had Social Darwinists. People who believe that it was their literal God given talents that made them wealthy. If the poor weren’t disposed to drugs, insanity, and making poor choices they wouldn’t be poor now would they? Quite frankly the poor are undeserving. They are the takers. That’s Ayn Rand. Rand was a popular author in the ’50s whose colorful tales were filled with people whose unquenchable thirst for more eventually brought down civilization. It’s also the modern Republican party. Obsessed as they are with givers and takers. Half this country are takers they say, the other half — the virtuous, god-fearing, half — are givers and taxpayers. They are the untiring folks upon whom stand all the rest, parasites, just eating and growing, and somehow not dying.
The poor are not the lowly incompetents that will spend money on nothing but drugs and alcohol. Addicts will yes. If you believe that all poor are drug addicts then you are ignorant scum of the earth. No offense. Ok maybe a little offense, because I’m tired of the poor bashing. Because even when drug addicts get their basic needs met they’re far more likely to get treatment and reenter society. We have a taboo about giving directly to the poor because they’ll waste it. Probably doing something immoral. Except that that’s all wrong.
There is a burgeoning field of work that say the exact opposite of popular anti-poor sentiment of poor shiftless losers. I don’t know how to reform the social safety net. I’m not a socialist or a communist (If you think so you need to go do some research on basic economic definitions) but I am fed up with this notion of givers and takers; of the poor being caricaturized as Ayn Rand style economic leeches that will bring down civilization. I don’t know if we should give money to the poor, but I do know that, if we did, it won’t have Malthusian style repercussions or be a Soviet-style drain on the economy. Because that’s the worry. Isn’t it. That a little of the poor will rub off on you. That a generous government will reduce all the good upstanding folk to a state of destitution and penury while the poor lounge about on government sponsored holidays. Like I said just a few sentences ago I don’t know how to reform the social safety net. Obviously some programs are better than others. But this time around let’s try a modicum of courtesy and respect shall we?
Total freedom is a wonderful fantastic thing and it’s rarely obtainable in this life among the teeming throngs of individuals colliding with each other in everyday society. Complete and utter freedom isn’t difficult obtain; it’s just undesirable. If you want every choice to be solely directed by you alone, all you have to do is to walk into the woods and never talk to a single human ever again. Perfect. Total. Freedom. The minute you bring someone into your wilderness paradise your choices become necessarily constrained. At first, it’s not typically a big deal. The constraints one person places on you are not onerous and the advantages more than make up for the inconvenience. If not, then there’d be no such thing as family. But this is also true writ large. What is gained by the association with one person is multiplied many times over the more people you have in your society. Why does the US have the largest most sophisticated military in the world? because we are the world’s third largest country by population. We have a tax base of over 300million people in our country to support the military without having to resort to draconian measures that would be destructive over the long term. The same is true for our scientific endeavors, our roads, waters, electricity, and other infrastructure, education, and every other human achievement is accomplished by this synergy of effort. Fine. No one’s suggesting that there aren’t clear advantages to collective effort, but could be argued that in a free society such as ours, I should be able to choose my level of participation. That’s true. It should work like that, but it doesn’t. It wasn’t happenstance that the US was the first nation to develop nuclear power, the space race, and other achievements of science and technology. Your participation in all of these programs was compulsory via your tax dollars. So it’s true that cooperation is highly efficacious. No one really argues this, but what does this mean for choice?
It means you have a great deal more freedom, but fewer choices. For example, my ability to speed down the freeway as fast as I can is highly constrained. In fact, when it comes to highway travel my choices are exceedingly limited. But within those limits, my freedoms are hugely expanded above that of a freeway system governed by lawless anarchy. My freedom to travel is greatly enhanced because of the freeway system, but the freeway system demands an abridgement of my own personal behavior. If I choose not to travel anywhere except on foot, then my choices are unlimited. I just can’t go very far. Again, what works in a microcosm works in the macrocosm. As our society develops, new freedoms are invented. Like this webpage. This represents an expanded freedom of expression for me. With new freedoms come new choices, and new limits on those choices. Usually, these are not in conflict. This written work is the result of my choices and freedoms, but it is not unlimited. I must abide by reasonable restrictions, such as the terms of service from wordpress, my ISP, copyright law, and other conditions. The restrictions of choice and the expansion of freedom are in such sync that expounding on them approaches the absurd. However, this is not always the case and off the top of my head I can think of three.
Education. It’s long been assumed that private education with all of it’s lovely choice, adherence to free market principles, innovation, and private funding is superior to public education. It turns out that it’s not. What private schools have going for them are wealthy families and wealthy neighborhoods which bring their own advantage and privilege. Once you account for your population bias, private schools underperform relative to public schools. Why? Because of market forces. I know it’s counter intuitive. Typically we think of market forces as generating a superior product. It’s not always true. A private school isn’t required to follow best practices. In fact there’s tremendous pressure on private schools to follow ‘traditional’ teaching practices that are ineffective and outdated. Public schools aren’t given that choice. The close public scrutiny that private schools escape creates a very demanding environment for public schools. Districts that promote “school choice” programs do not necessarily do better than districts that do not. Charter schools do no better on average than public schools. More school choices, more freedom, should work better. It doesn’t. In part because of uncorrectable distortions in the market, human perception, and the difficulty of making rational choices, and imperfect information. Consider that in 20 states it is still legal to hit a student in public school, and only two states have made it illegal for private schools. This runs counter to 100 years of education and psychological research not to mention your own basic humanity. It is unimaginably harmful for students. Yet there’s pressure (largely in the south. No surprise) among an uninformed population to maintain this practice. If we define freedom for students as getting the best education available this will involve restricting choices at the level of parents, states, and school districts.
Healthcare. This is a big one for a lot of people. Once we decided that it was in our national self-interest to maintain a healthy citizenry, it became mandatory that people get healthcare. At the moment the big debate is Obamacare and the individual mandate. Should we require people to purchase health insurance? Yes. Absolutely. One of the many many unstated goals of Obamacare is to move healthcare from a service industry to an infrastructure. That means that like the roads, they need to be supported by everyone. Freedom in this case is access to healthcare when you need it. Healthcare economics dictate that you have to pay for it when you don’t need it if you’re going to have access to it when you do. That’s just the way it works. Should a person be able to walk into a hospital and clinic and pay for the services that he or she needs no more no less. Absolutely. Alas that’s not the way the world works. If you want efficient hospitals and clinics you need a plan.
More importantly there’s another, quieter, revolution happening in medicine. It’s called “evidence based medicine”. Sounds wonderful, who doesn’t want their medicine to be based on evidence. It turns out that it’s pretty much everyone. Classic example is a parent demanding antibiotics for a child’s cold. The antibiotics don’t work on colds, they’ll, in fact, cause antibiotic resistance which is harmful and deadly but the parent will get them anyway because they are free to demand it, and the doctors are free to prescribe any damn thing they like for just about any reason they like. Another great example is breast screenings. A study came out a few years ago that said women shouldn’t be getting as many breast exams as they were currently getting. It sounds good, no one likes breast exams, but it caused unholy outrage among women’s groups who feared they would all now die of cancer. The extra screenings were causing problems and weren’t as effective as researchers initially thought. Plus they knew a lot more about cancer now than when they first started screenings. Does that matter to patients? nope. But they’re going to demand the extra screenings and doctors will give it to them despite the fact that it’s wasteful and prone to creating expensive complications. The medical field is full of this kind of stuff.
Charity. Finally, there is a belief common among the conservatives that antipoverty efforts are best left to the private sector, especially churches. Never mind the fact that churches don’t have resources to manage their own debts let alone take on a new antipoverty measure, never mind the fact that charitable giving doesn’t come close to what is necessary, or that the giving that is done isn’t necessarily effective at fighting poverty, or the hateful, idiotic, dangerous, inept, self-servicing, unabashedly evil argument that public charity creates dependency, they believe that the role of the federal government should be completely absent. Why should we care about the poor? From a completely selfish perspective, why bother? Because I believe in freedom. For me. But I recognize that the accomplishments of this country are drawn from collective effort. By disenfranchising a segment of the population we can not obtain our next expansion in freedoms. Indeed they risk shrinking. Wealth in this country is generated not by the super wealthy (although I’m sure they like to think so), but by the middle class. The bigger and stronger the middle class is, the wealthier and better off everyone will be. And by everyone I mean me. The private sector does important work; I don’t want to dismiss it. But effective anti-poverty efforts can only be done at the state and federal level. This will necessarily abrogate a little choice for Joe Taxpayer. In return he will obtain freedom.