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The Political Weakness of the Poor - An Argument for Limiting Government Power:

One of the strongest traditional arguments for expanding government power in a democracy is that doing so can improve the lot of the poor by enabling them to use their voting power to promote redistributive policies. Yet numerous recent studies (primarily by left of center scholars) show that, in fact, the poor have very little influence over public policy. Recent empirical studies by political scientists Martin Gilens and Larry Bartels actually conclude that the poorest 20-30% of Americans have almost no political influence at all. In his 2003 book, The State of Democratic Theory (which I reviewed here), prominent liberal political theorist Ian Shapiro summarized the evidence that democratic governments generally achieve little in the way of net redistribution to the poor. Indeed, the biggest spending programs in most advanced democracies (notably old-age pensions and farm subsidies) tend to benefit wealthy and upper middle class interests, partly at the expense of the poor. The latter pay for Social Security through regressive payroll taxes, don't collect as much Social Security as the more affluent because they die much younger, and also suffer disproportionately from the increase in food prices caused by farm subsidies that promote cartels and restrict production below free market levels.

The relative political weakness of the poor is not surprising. Studies have long demonstrated that the poor are less likely to vote than the rich, less likely to participate in politics in other ways, have lower political knowledge, and of course make fewer and small campaign contributions.

Shapiro, and to a much lesser extent Gilens and Bartels, argue that the political weakness of the poor should be overcome by limiting the power of the rich through "campaign finance reform." I am skeptical. Any reform measures must be enacted by incumbent legislators. Yet what incentives do such legislators have to enact reforms that might imperil their own reelection by empowering groups that contributed little or nothing to their initial election? In fact, as John Samples shows in this excellent new book, real-world campaign finance measures mostly strengthen incumbents and powerful interest groups rather than the poor.

In my view, the political weakness of the poor is an argument not for campaign finance reform, but for reducing the role of government in society. If big government is not a good way to redistribute wealth to the poor and instead tends to transfer wealth to wealthy and middle class interest groups (sometimes at the expense of the poor), that undercuts one of the main arguments for the the massive modern state.

Obviously, the more affluent members of society also have superior buying power in the free market. However, the difference is much smaller than in the political arena. While each individual poor person has relatively little purchasing power in the market, collectivey they have a great deal. Many of the world's most successful businesses (notably Wal Mart) have made enormous profits precisely by finding ways to sell cheap, yet reasonable quality, products to the poor. In the political arena, by contrast, politicians can either ignore the wishes of the poor entirely (as Gilens and Bartels claim they usually do), or exploit their severe political ignorance by enacting symbolic "feel good" policies that do little or nothing to actually benefit poor people, and in some cases even harm them.

I do not claim that this consideration by itself justifies libertarianism, nor am I categorically opposed to all government redistribution to the poor. Indeed, I think that some redistributive programs for the poor are both justifiable and necessary. If it were up to me, I would prefer a constitution that forbids all or most redistribution to the wealthy and middle class, while permitting redistribution to those below the poverty line.

At the same time, however, the political weakness of the poor is a strong argument against claims that big government is justified by the need to fight poverty and empower the disadvantaged. Quite the opposite may well occur in cases where expanded government power means transferring authority to an entity over which the poor have almost no influence.

frankcross (mail):
Of course, if people vote altruistically, and not selfishly, it is not important that the poor themselves have little political power, so long as other voters care about them.
11.6.2006 10:43pm
Ilya Somin:
Of course, if people vote altruistically, and not selfishly, it is not important that the poor themselves have little political power, so long as other voters care about them.

I don't think so. People's perceptions of the public good may well be biased by self-interest. Moreover, voting is not the only, and often not even the most important, form of political influencing. Even if voting is altruistic (as I think it mostly is), lobbying and interest group influence probably generally isn't.
11.6.2006 11:10pm
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
I am not sure how much of the time voting is altruistic. Is is altruistic to vote for someone who wants to raise taxes on the rich so that they can increase benefits for the voter? I would call that more selfish than altruistic.

That said, what is altruistic for one is not for another. For me, being extremely sceptical that government can solve really any problems, the altruistic vote is against increased government in most forms. Indeed, looking back to Johnson's War on Poverty, one could argue that the altruistic vote would have been against the program (or, probably more realistically, against anyone supporting the program). But of course, many of those voting for politicians supporting it did so on what they considered altruistic grounds.
11.6.2006 11:28pm
SR (mail):
I do not think that the political powerlessness of the poor presents a persuasive case for less governmental intervention in the economy.

Basically I don't think that it makes sense for the poor to throw out their medicaid, public education, head start, and social security (which actually provides a greater subsidy in percentage terms to low-income individuals) in return for Wal Mart.

The fact that the poor are powerless presents a compelling argument for the need of the poor to gain more power (not necessarily through campaign finance reform). And you know what the poor will do when/if they get more power? I bet they will increase funding for public education, publically provided health care, the minimum wage and the funding for all of the other public goods that they are provided.
11.6.2006 11:41pm
Ilya Somin:
Basically I don't think that it makes sense for the poor to throw out their medicaid, public education, head start, and social security (which actually provides a greater subsidy in percentage terms to low-income individuals) in return for Wal Mart.

This assumes that 1) that these programs actually help the poor (in reality many of them do not, or are inferior to privae sector alternatives, and 2) that their benefits offset the harm the poor suffer from other government programs. I think that both assumptions are flawed, especially 2.
11.6.2006 11:45pm
Nate F (mail):
Ilya --
Even public education? Really?
11.7.2006 12:23am
jimboinsk:
Nate F,
Define public education. Do you mean inner city with no choice of school (i.e. no voucher or other alternative program), teachers who enjoy tenure instead of teaching, and students who want to succeed being stuck in a hostile learning environment?
11.7.2006 12:50am
Ilya Somin:
Ilya --
Even public education? Really?


For the reasons cited by jimboinsk, among others, I think that the current public education system provides very little benefit to the very poor (say the bottom 10% of the income distribution).
11.7.2006 12:57am
SR (mail):
"For the reasons cited by jimboinsk, among others, I think that the current public education system provides very little benefit to the very poor (say the bottom 10% of the income distribution)."


But without massive redistribution of wealth, I don't see how the very poor would be able to pay for education. How much is tuition at a decent private school these days?
11.7.2006 1:41am
Nate F (mail):
Even if we implemented the reforms implied by those comments, we would still have public education, though. I fail to see an alternative system here.

As a side note, I am not fond of a voucher system because it is difficult to target such a program only to underperforming schools. Where I grew up, the overwhelming majority of the local private schools were not even remotely on par with my (public) high school. I assume this is not a unique situation, and I don't think the state should be subsidizing a lower standard of education. Therefore, a voucher system needs to be targeted to underperforming schools, and it seems like it would be difficult (and maybe even unconstitutional? I don't know, I'm not a lawyer) to do so.

Also, the comment about "teachers who enjoy tenure over teaching" strikes me as an unfair characterization of the overwhelming majority of teachers I've encountered.
11.7.2006 1:46am
logicnazi (mail) (www):
I have three major disagreements with this post (I am toying the style of summary first then my very long explanation.)

First the analysis up top is basically establishing that democratic governments don't 'do much' to help the poor compared to some vague moral intuition of what enough help would be. It does not show that on an absolute scale the poor are not greatly helped by the government in democratic societies.

Secondly, the conclusion that democratic governments are not good at distributing money to the poor does not establish that other methods are better.

Third and most importantly, the fact that democratic governments often choose not to implement appropriate measures to help the poor doesn't bear on the goodness of governmental programs to help the poor.

Also I have to say I'm confused what the total market power of the poor has to do with this? Isn't the per person power what matters? Or do you want them to form a cartel and use that leverage to force transfer payments?

--

1) For instance consider your accusation that payroll taxes are regressive. Doing a quick search I found two and studies showing that social security does not on net redistribute money from the poor to the rich or middle class.

The question of whether SS ultimately redistributes money from the poor to the rich is a complex one with serious claims that it does resting on the fact that rich people live longer. The first study I link takes this into account and concludes that on net it is neutral. While the second points out that social security redistributes from richer future generations to poorer past ones.

This has little to do with the regressive label on social security though. This is just one of the few liberal linguistic victories. Basically we managed to get it labeled regressive by having people consider it as just another tax. However, if you consider it as a government underwritten retirement program with some redistribution built in on top of it then it is not regressive, at least no more so than things like lifetime annuities are regressive.

Thus all you establish in point 1 is that democratic governments don't do as much as people like I would like them to do to help the poor. They still probably on net redistribute money from rich to poor.

2) Basically this just follows from 1. Unless you can show democracies actually on net redistribute from poor to rich then you would have to give evidence that a free market would be a better alternative. I suspect that on net democratic governments redistribute to the poor and while some of this would be compensated for by charitable giving in a libertarian society not all of it would be (especially if we are moving from a society where the government provides for the poor).

Moreover in a more libertarian situation I worry that certain groups will find themselves left out in the cold. The government is pretty good at helping almost all the poor without discriminating against certain groups but I don't know how good private groups would be. For instance I worry that churches might become the only real players in giving aid to the poor and put religious conditions on the aid, or that these groups would refuse to help ex-sex offenders, satanists or just some hard to reach groups like poor Eskimos.

3) I think this is the big error in your argument. Showing that democratic governments don't tend to implement redistributive policies that help the poor seems only to go to our general selfishness and don't provide an argument that the government shouldn't undertake such policies.

At best it seems your argument is only valid against the individual who says 'Yes, let's generally favor higher taxes and bigger government because I suspect extra money we give to the government will go to help the poor.' But no one really says this. Rather people support big government in particular cases, they want programs X,Y, Z and you haven't done anything to show that this position is a bad one.

In other words noticing that farm subsidies and corporate welfare are bad things doesn't show that we would be better to take that money and lower taxes with it rather than to take that money and use it for real redistribution.

Also the bit about it being bad for the poor to give their money to a government they don't influence doesn't really make sense. The poor aren't the ones who get to make this choice in the first place. Unless you are proposing constitutional bars to taxation the government the poor don't control can always come in and take the money anyway.
11.7.2006 2:50am
Ilya Somin:
First the analysis up top is basically establishing that democratic governments don't 'do much' to help the poor compared to some vague moral intuition of what enough help would be. It does not show that on an absolute scale the poor are not greatly helped by the government in democratic societies.

No, as Shapiro explains in his book, democratic governments ON NET fail to redistribute to the poor, at least on the expenditure side of the equation. It's not just that they redistribute less than some hypothetical ideal.


Secondly, the conclusion that democratic governments are not good at distributing money to the poor does not establish that other methods are better.

Maybe, but it does rebut the poverty-reduction argument for increasing government power, which is one of the most important arguments used to defend growth of government over the last 100 years. Even if "other methods" also fail to redistribute to the poor, the failure of government to do so shows that this argument is not an advantage of government over the market.

Third and most importantly, the fact that democratic governments often choose not to implement appropriate measures to help the poor doesn't bear on the goodness of governmental programs to help the poor.

It does if this is an inherent flaw of democratic government, and not just a temporary aberration. The data on the near-political impotence of the poor suggest that the former is true, at least to a large extent.


Also I have to say I'm confused what the total market power of the poor has to do with this? Isn't the per person power what matters? Or do you want them to form a cartel and use that leverage to force transfer payments?

The poor (or anyone else) don't have to form a cartel in order to have buying power. If more resources are left in the private sector as opposed to the public sector, the poor (because of their consumer power) will have more influence over how those resources are used.

Also the bit about it being bad for the poor to give their money to a government they don't influence doesn't really make sense. The poor aren't the ones who get to make this choice in the first place. Unless you are proposing constitutional bars to taxation the government the poor don't control can always come in and take the money anyway.

If the size and scope of government are limited (as I propose) than government's ability to "come in and take the money anyway" will be significantly reduced, though I admit it can't (and shouldn't) be eliminated completely.
11.7.2006 4:41am
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
As a side note, I am not fond of a voucher system because it is difficult to target such a program only to underperforming schools. Where I grew up, the overwhelming majority of the local private schools were not even remotely on par with my (public) high school. I assume this is not a unique situation, and I don't think the state should be subsidizing a lower standard of education. Therefore, a voucher system needs to be targeted to underperforming schools, and it seems like it would be difficult (and maybe even unconstitutional? I don't know, I'm not a lawyer) to do so.
This seems to misunderstand the theory behind vouchers. Rather, if the local school district is superior, then, fine, give them the money. If a private school is better, then, fine, give them the money. But remember, that public school that may be better than the private schools in the area may be decidedly inferior for some, if not many, of its students.

One problem with the theory that only those in failing schools should get vouchers is that that implies determining whether a school is failing. And how to do that? Standardized test scores? But that only identifies how well a school is doing overall, and not how well it is doing for a specific student. Indeed, that individuality is precisely what is taken out of the equation by standardized testing.

So, if you set the floor at 70% reading and doing math at grade level (which I suspect is high), then, by definition, 30% are failing. But if the school is technically not failing, then your kid is SOL if he is in that 30%. And then, what about those who are above the norm? Why should a school put any money into AP and honors classes if they don't count towards failure? Much better for the school district to concentrate on the bottom 25% than splitting it with the top 25%.

Dealing with the public school system is one of the most disempowering things that many parents have to deal with. If they complain, the administrators trot out their doctorate degrees and pretend to know more about what their kids need than the parents do. But, of course, they usually don't. They have typically spent minutes or a few hours with the students, while the parents have spent years and years with them (I got a lot of grief in another thread about using Dr. as a lawyer, but one place I invariably do it is in dealing with teachers and educators - and it works).

True story about private schools. A good friend in about 7th grade was reading at about a 4th grade level. His parents kept going to the school and telling them there was something wrong. The people at the school told them that he was just stupid. The parents didn't believe this. Both parents had college degrees, and their son didn't seem stupid to them. He just couldn't learn. So, they spent his college money on private middle (and later high) school. Within a week, they had him diagnosed as dislexic, and worked around that. By the end of the year, he was reading at grade level, and by the time he graduated, he was a couple years ahead. Now he has three college degrees - and if he had stayed in public school, he would probably have not graduated from high school.

They were lucky. They had a little extra money from relatives saved for college. And being college educated, they weren't willing to accept the diagnosis by the educrats. But there are millions of families not so lucky. One woman who worked for me had two of her kids thrown out of high school, essentially because of learning disabilities. The school district would take their state and federal funds for the year, then throw them out within a month of startingg the school year. The kids weren't dumb, but did have minor learning disabilities (one got her GED at 16). But the parents were powerless in the face of well credentialed public educrats. And that was devastating for their mother, as she watched her kids fail out, one after another, of an unresponsive public education system, with no real recourse or accountability.
11.7.2006 5:25am
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
This all brings up a lot of different issues. As I noted above, many of the programs allegedly created for the benefit of the poor have resulted in more, not less, poverty. Why? The law of unintended consequences. For example, it was compassionate to support single mothers with kids. Fine, but that ultimately resulted in a significant inducement towards unwed motherhood for those at the bottom of the economic system, and that, in turn, created a number of other societal problems, from raising so many kids in a fatherless environment, including much of the gang culture for the boys, and subsequent generations of single mothers with kids living in poverty.

Another is that because those on the bottom are effectively powerless, others propose to speak for them and try to help them out. But in many cases, the speakers for the poor get the poor what they, the "representatives" of the poor think that the poor need, and not what they really need.

Add to this that it sometimes becomes stylized or formalized. At one time, the minimum wage really helped the poor. So, we see a proposal to lock minimum wage increases in the CO constitution in today's election. Never mind that a large number of those earning minimum wage are living with their families, or that it often operates to push those just starting out out of the workforce. It is now dogma that minimum wage increases help the poor, regardless of the facts. So, it continues.
11.7.2006 5:36am
Jefe (mail):
"But without massive redistribution of wealth, I don't see how the very poor would be able to pay for education. How much is tuition at a decent private school these days?"

Divide the total cost of your local public school district budget by the number of students served. You might be surprised.
11.7.2006 8:36am
Andy Freeman (mail):
> But without massive redistribution of wealth, I don't see how the very poor would be able to pay for education.

"I don't know how to do it" isn't exactly an argument for taking my money to try. (You, of course, are free to spend your money.)

Until you figure out how to actually deliver a decent education via the public system, how about we not pay for it?
11.7.2006 8:56am
J. F. Thomas (mail):
As I noted above, many of the programs allegedly created for the benefit of the poor have resulted in more, not less, poverty.

Really? Which programs specifically? Are more people living in poverty in this country now than in 1960 or 1940? Are the poor worse off now than they were in Dickensian England where there were no government programs for the poor? Or how about during the potato famine in Ireland? Where the official policy of the English Government was not to provide food aid to the poor in Ireland and as a result fully 1/6 of the population starved to death and another 1/6 emigrated? Yep, the free market worked like a charm there. Rich landowners in Ireland continued to export food throughout the entire famine.

This assumes that 1) that these programs actually help the poor (in reality many of them do not, or are inferior to privae sector alternatives, and 2) that their benefits offset the harm the poor suffer from other government programs. I think that both assumptions are flawed, especially 2.

So where are all these private sector alternatives? 45 million people in this country don't have health insurance. Seems like the private sector is failing there (but of course that is the government's fault--overregulation, the tort system, blah, blah, blah--yet every other western country manages to cover their entire population for less money).

As for schooling. It is amazing that when privatization advocates are asked to asked for a solution to the problems of inner city public schools they point to the historic success of Catholic Schools in the inner cities, especially in the Northeast, Midwest, and even New Orleans. This is especially ironic considering these schools were able to keep their tuitions affordable because they were, in the past, able to rely on a staff made up of ordered members (nuns, monks, and priests) who lived a communal lifestyle and were paid almost nothing. Now tuition at these schools is rising as that pool of instructors is disappearing.
11.7.2006 9:01am
J. F. Thomas (mail):
Until you figure out how to actually deliver a decent education via the public system, how about we not pay for it?

I am sick of people denigrating the public education system, especially so-called libertarians who teach at public universities (yes I'm bashing you Ilya, Eugene, and your buddy at UT, Instapundit) and are paid by the taxpayers of Virginia to learn how evil public education is and what a horrible education they are receiving (and apparently that they themselves are incompetent "educrats").

There are excellent public schools in this country that are as good as the best private schools at all levels. At my public high school in the suburbs of Chicago we had college level courses in English, Calculus, Chemistry, Physics, and Biology. We also had an extensive vocational eduction program. In my class we had 13 National Merit Finalists and sent graduates to Northwestern, the University of Chicago, Harvard, and many went to the University of Illinois and other Big Ten schools. Some of the best research universities in this countries are public universities.

So stop this nonsense that all public schools are lousy or failures.
11.7.2006 9:14am
Ken Arromdee:
At my public high school in the suburbs of Chicago we had...

So stop this nonsense that all public schools are lousy or failures.


The idea that "all" public schools are lousy or failures is exaggeration. The actual idea is that public schools that cater to the poor are lousy or failures. Was your public high school mainly serving the poor or the middle class/rich? (From your reference to suburbs I suspect the latter.)
11.7.2006 9:23am
J. F. Thomas (mail):
The actual idea is that public schools that cater to the poor are lousy or failures. Was your public high school mainly serving the poor or the middle class/rich? (From your reference to suburbs I suspect the latter.)

The assertion above was that all public schools were lousy. That is what set me off. Obviously, I went to a school in a solidly middle class to upper middle class neighborhood. I don't see any evidence that the problem of public schools in poor areas are going to be solved by privatization. As I indicated above, the models people love to point to (e.g., the Catholic Schools) are inevitably charitable institutions, not for-profit ones.
11.7.2006 9:32am
markm (mail):
"Of course, if people vote altruistically, and not selfishly, it is not important that the poor themselves have little political power, so long as other voters care about them."

At best, this gives us altruistic programs that don't meet expectations, because they were selected by people unfamiliar with the people and neighborhoods where the programs are applied. It gets worse from there, as well-off altruistic voters get taken in by self-declared "experts", who often are following their own self-interest.

Private altruism is subject to the same problems, but usually to not such an extent. Poor people can choose which private charities they go to, to some extent. Being smaller, private charities have an easier time reforming themselves when simple observation of their clientele suggests that something is wrong.
11.7.2006 9:47am
Chumund:
Of course, anarchocommunists have been urging this point for quite a while.
11.7.2006 10:00am
logicnazi (mail) (www):
Ilya,

What you say on NET fail to redistribute to the poor you mean the net change in monetary wealth of the poor due to government action is negative? If so then this is a fairly powerful argument and renders some of my other points obsolete but I'm not convinced it is so.


Also when talking about whether this is an argument against adopting large governmental redistribution programs you say.

It does if this is an inherent flaw of democratic government, and not just a temporary aberration. The data on the near-political impotence of the poor suggest that the former is true, at least to a large extent.

This still depends on what TYPE of flaw it is. I interpret this as an unwillingness to enact sufficiently progressive programs.

Surely you don't think it is impossible for a government to on net redistribute wealth to the poor. You are just arguing that the voters tend not to be willing to bear higher taxes to transfer money to the poor.

But the fact that a democratic process won't redistribute income doesn't establish they shouldn't redistribute.

I mean I can run the same argument the other way. Looking at democracies around the world it seems to be more than a temporary aberration that none of them have a libertarian friendly tax system. I hypothesise that the democratic governments are inherently inclined not to be libertarian. Does it follow that therefore they should not be libertarian?

In other words if you get to say we should be libertarian by imagining a world where the government does something even though the voters won't approve it (magically waving your want and writing it into the constitution) then I get to do the same and imagine a world where the government genuinely pursues a redistributionist program even though the voters won't approve it.
11.7.2006 10:10am
J. F. Thomas (mail):
What you say on NET fail to redistribute to the poor you mean the net change in monetary wealth of the poor due to government action is negative? If so then this is a fairly powerful argument and renders some of my other points obsolete but I'm not convinced it is so.

While on balance this may be true in the U.S. for the last twenty years (which of course corresponds with a wholesale assault on the union movement in the U.S. and the corporatization of the Democratic party), your whole thesis kind of falls apart when you look at the social democracies of Europe. As much as you may hate them and claim that they are doomed, they have been very effective in redistributing wealth.
11.7.2006 10:19am
Houston Lawyer:
The article assumes that redistribution to the poor would be a good thing. It also seems to assume that granting the poor more political power would be a good thing. While I believe that we should remove barriers that impede the poor and should give them access to a good education, I don't believe that society would benefit in any way from increasing their political power.
11.7.2006 11:10am
J. F. Thomas (mail):
While I believe that we should remove barriers that impede the poor and should give them access to a good education, I don't believe that society would benefit in any way from increasing their political power.

So what you are saying is you don't believe in democracy but a plutocracy.
11.7.2006 11:16am
Andy Freeman (mail):
> I don't see any evidence that the problem of public schools in poor areas are going to be solved by privatization.

That's nice, but the question is whether we should pay for failing public schools.

Note that at least some of the money that we pay for them comes from poor people. Is there some benefit to pissing away rich people's money?
11.7.2006 11:57am
whit:
"As a side note, I am not fond of a voucher system because it is difficult to target such a program only to underperforming schools. "

there is no reason to. vouchers only become attractive (they only pay for part of private school tuition) when the value in a private school education outweighs the value of a public school education, AND to the extent where it outweighs the extra costs (which of course are LESS with vouchers, which somewhat evens the playing field).

so, if a public school is overperforming, vouchers will not be popular in that area, since the marketplace doesn't justify the added cost of the private school (even with the vouchers)

this is the beauty of the vouchers system is that it basically makes education into a more competitive (economically) system that rewards high performance (with tax dollars) and punishes poor performance
11.7.2006 12:25pm
Jam (mail):
"Caring' for the poor with the use of "public" money means subsidies to the "care givers." The poor just get the crumbs; enough silk to dress up the pigs at the trough. The pigs being the "care giver" industry.
11.7.2006 1:50pm
MnZ (mail):
As much as you may hate [European Social Democracies] and claim that they are doomed, they have been very effective in redistributing wealth.


European social democracies are not doomed. Now, several aspects of them are doomed such as their public retirement systems. Furthermore, they are undoubtedly more effective in redistributing wealth.

There is a real problem for European social democracies are as follows. First, their inability to economically integrate politically less powerful groups in the mainstream. (Living on the dole does not equal integration.) This problem is partly due to their policies that "ensure" social equality. (See the CPE debate in France.) Second, there is a real risk that the higher economic growth in the US will result in a much higher standard of living for America's poor than the poor in Europe, even without radical wealth redistribution.
11.7.2006 2:12pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):
I find it interesting that at the Constitutional Convention, one of the assumptions that seemed to have been widely shared was that runaway democracy ("Gracchianism" is a phrase then used) would not benefit the poor, who would seem its obvious beneficiaries, but an effective demagogue from the wealthy classes who could sway the poor to put him in power--where he would then benefit other members of his class. (Yeah, think Teddy Kennedy.)

The assumptions that led classical liberal economists to be skeptical of governmental intervention into the market place was that such actions were almost always for the benefit of those in power. Hence, minimum wage laws were regarded with skepticism not for the modern reason (they tend to disemploy those at the bottom of the skill ladder), but because historically, wage controls were for the benefit of the wealthy--not for the benefit of the poor. Henry VIII's wage controls, for example, set maximum wages to deal with rising demand for labor. Similarly, Puritan Massachusetts adopted wage controls in the 1630s (three shillings per day for skilled laborers, two shillings six pence for unskilled laborers) because shortages of labor were causing "impudent" unskilled laborers to demand an "unfair" amount of money. (There's a very funny description of this struggle in Governor John Winthrop's journals.)

In some theoretical world, democratic societies would redistribute some reasonable amount of wealth downward to those who, through no fault of their own, were poor. (Hint: alcoholics, drug addicts, and lazy people are poor. They chose that poverty.) In practice, the liberal welfare state throws a few crumbs to the poor, while largely redistributing wealth upward.

With the possible exception of public education (which doesn't work anywhere near as well as poor people as it could), I find it entirely plausible that the welfare state does about as much harm to the poor as it does good. The need of well-intentioned liberals to make compromises to get legislation passed means that almost every good intention ends up as special interest law. For example, the Food Stamps program. Why does it only buy American food, and nothing imported? Because it was originally as much to deal with the side effects of the farm price support program intervention into free markets as it was to help the poor.
11.7.2006 4:56pm
Nate F (mail):
"That's nice, but the question is whether we should pay for failing public schools. Note that at least some of the money that we pay for them comes from poor people. Is there some benefit to pissing away rich people's money?"

You must be joking, right? If you think that underperforming schools are worse than no schools at all... yikes. Remember, since you can't be bothered to propose an alternative, that is the only alternative.

"So, if a public school is overperforming, vouchers will not be popular in that area, since the marketplace doesn't justify the added cost of the private school (even with the vouchers)"

That's a great theory, except that ALL the public schools where I came from were good, yet the lousy private schools still managed to find a sizable student body (who would, presumably, take those vouchers).
11.7.2006 5:19pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
Nate F: assuming for the sake of argument that your assessment of the respective quality of these schools is correct, it misses the point. As with all pro-government arguments, it assumes that there's a one-size-fits-all solution for everyone. But that's not the case. Some people do well in one type of environment and some in another. The fact that your school was good does not mean that everyone succeeded there -- and the fact that someone failed there does not mean that he would not do better in a different school.


Logicnazi:
This still depends on what TYPE of flaw it is. I interpret this as an unwillingness to enact sufficiently progressive programs.

Surely you don't think it is impossible for a government to on net redistribute wealth to the poor. You are just arguing that the voters tend not to be willing to bear higher taxes to transfer money to the poor.

But the fact that a democratic process won't redistribute income doesn't establish they shouldn't redistribute.
No, it establishes that they won't. You're confusing is and ought. It doesn't matter what it "should" do; if it doesn't do it, then the "should" is irrelevant.
11.7.2006 7:22pm
Andy Freeman (mail):
> If you think that underperforming schools are worse than no schools at all... yikes. Remember, since you can't be bothered to propose an alternative, that is the only alternative.

Nate's school didn't do as good a job as he claims. I did propose an alternative to paying for failed schools. Namely not paying for them. Shut them down and open new schools. If they fail, shut them down. Repeat until you get schools that don't fail. Keep them, as long as they don't fail.

Surely Nate isn't willing to admit that public schools must fail.

We've tried "keep them open, maybe they'll improve"; they don't.

BTW - Nate seems to believe that failing schools are better than no schools, yet doesn't bother to provide any supporting evidence. ("Yikes" isn't actually an argument.)
11.8.2006 2:08am
Ben121:
I'm not sure it is significant that the poor are not helped by social democratic policies. It could be argued that social democratic policies, by benefiting the middle class, make it easier NOT to be poor. Put another way, the ranks of the poor would swell without social democratic policies that subsidize a middle class lifestyle.
11.8.2006 4:57pm