Poverty may be the worst thing that conservatives and progressives agree on.
It’s not on policy, mind you. But their policy proposals are both motivated by same basic assumption about what causes poverty–namely, the ignorance and incompetence of poor people themselves.
Some may surely bristle at this description, so it’s useful to see how this concept is evident in the ideas that are explicitly advanced by both conservatives and progressives.
Conservatives tend to assume that poor people are poor because they make bad life choices. Maybe drugs, maybe having sex and getting pregnant too early, or maybe just spending more than they can afford to. And from this, conservatives often conclude we need not use government policy to help poor people. After all, they brought it on themselves, so how can we hope to save them from their own bad choices?
As appalling that position may sound, the progressive take is not really much better. Painting with a broad brush, progressives generally believe poor people are poor because an array of systemic forces stand in their way of a better life. They aren’t wrong about this, but they are wrong about what those forces are.
Usually, progressives view the poor as a victim of the capitalist system, and every business they interact with is hellbent on exploiting them. Employers want to pay them too little, landlords want to charge them too much, and grocery stores probably want to sell them junk food–culminating in the relatively new issue of food deserts.
But notice what the progressive story also entails. In a capitalist system, people can’t be (legally) exploited without their consent. What progressives are often ultimately saying about poor people is that they don’t know what’s really in their best interest.
Splitting a flat with another family might be necessary to save on the cost of rent. But it would be too degrading to their dignity so it shouldn’t be allowed; city planning codes can make it illegal to solve this problem. This may make housing too expensive, no matter. No matter, we’ll have the government depress interest rates and build affordable housing to fill the void.
Working overtime might help poor people make ends meet. But as we know from Mr. Sanders, progressives believe that if you work 40 hours a week, you should earn enough to not be in poverty. Thus, employers should be punished for making anyone work more than that and they are–in particular, employers have to pay time and a half for every hour above 40 per week. This seems like a benefit to the worker, but in practice, it serves to eliminate choice and flexibility. If the 41st hour of the week costs 50% more than other labor, employers will be reluctant to pay for it. So poor people who need to work more than 40 hours to get by may need to find a second job instead, since working overtime has become artificially expensive for employers and that much harder to find.
Not to worry, this has a solution too. If working 40 hours isn’t enough to get by right now, then we just need to raise the minimum wage. And so on, and so forth.
Each progressive intervention creates problems that warrant new interventions to solve them. But the root cause in all of it is the same. Poor people are not smart enough to make good decisions for themselves–what wage is appropriate, how much they should work, how they should live, etc. Instead it’s up to the high-minded and selfless progressive to craft policy to make certain unsavory choices illegal–thereby preventing the poor from being exploited.
Thus we see that, while the motivations and policy prescriptions may differ markedly, the fundamental assumption about poor people is the same for many conservatives and progressives alike: poor people are poor because they don’t act in their own best interest. For conservatives, this is a justification for doing nothing at all, a defense of the status quo. For progressives, it’s a justification for an endless series of interventions in the economy designed to help the poor, without regard for likely consequences.
Libertarians take a different approach.
Broadly speaking, we agree with progressives that there are a myriad of systemic forces that exist today that help keep people in poverty. The problem is that we believe most of those forces are the creation of government, not of capitalism.
We believe that poor people are in the best position to decide what is right for themselves. And each intervention that restricts their choices, no matter how well-intentioned, is likely to make them worse off.
To see exactly how this phenomenon manifests in practice, we recommend this excellent article from Charles Johnson at the Foundation for Economic Education. In it, Johnson shows how well-meaning policies on everything from housing to food safety have created a world where it is extremely difficult for poor people to get ahead or even get by. It’s an essential read for anyone who cares about these issues.
Here’s the link: