A Reality Check for Liberals

Everyone needs a good reality check now and then, even raving liberals like me. The Great Escape, by Angus Deaton, a Scot teaching at Princeton, provides just such a dispassionate look at the state of things.

Titled after the movie of the same name, Deaton’s book is actually about humankind’s escape from the misery and early death that was our common lot just a few centuries ago, even for the very rich. It also takes note that the escape in both the movie and in reality were imperfect. The reality check, for me at least, is in realizing that much of the inequality we see today is a natural product of the way things improve—that is, not all at once, not for everyone at the same time.

The main point Deaton makes is that much of the inequality that we see between countries has benign origins. When the germ theory of disease was proven, in the mid-1800s, it took a century for the word to reach around the world, and even today there are places that haven’t gotten the word. During that century, there were enormous inequalities that depended on how soon the germ theory became known and acted upon. Those late getting word and acting on it were still at the mercy of germs that could have been controlled. Today, new information as important as germ theory can potentially reach almost everyone on Earth very quickly. And yet, adoption and dispersal of new developments is not nearly as rapid as it should be.

Much of the inequality
between countries
has benign origins.

Each time there’s an important advance, in medicine, or manufacturing, or food cultivation, the people and the countries that adopt it first will automatically worsen inequality simply because the others have not yet come along. Lack of communication is far less of a factor today, but things like inadequate government wealth and lack of infrastructure may also delay innovation.

Is it possible for rich countries to bring poor countries out of poverty? The answer is not so clear. There is reason to think that the best thing we can do is get out of the way, that poor countries have to go through a process of growth and maturity. If they do not, because aid from rich countries short circuits this process through unrealistic expectations and false statistics created by the need for both donor and recipient both to report success, the poor country may in fact be retarded by charity or aid. And these things happen too often.

Trying to improve the world
is difficult and complex.

The factors that are essential are democracy and rule of law. Until a healthy measure of these things is achieved, the poor country will be prevented from maturing. Probably the worst thing to have happen is for a corrupt tyrant to attain power, as has happened far too often in Africa. Such rulers rarely yield power voluntarily, and use the resources of the country not to make the people better off, but to enrich themselves and their military supporters. Usually, the fortunes of the people worsen. Mugabe, in Zimbabwe, is the archetypical example. He has been in power for over three decades, and has literally ruined the country top to bottom. Some others are just as bad.

So it appears that government assistance often does not accomplish anything remotely near what was supposed would happen, or even what is most needed. Part of the reason, I believe, is that governments can only think of grandiose projects that use their money all at once. Good neighborhood water and sewer systems are a common crucial need, but the government is often only able to think of something like a giant dam that will cost billions and make a few people rich. But it will bring almost no benefit to the people, who will still have no clean water and live amidst human waste.

Government assistance often
does not accomplish anything good.

NGOs appear to do a better job. They are better able to perceive actual needs, and to function at the proper scale. But even they often fail to bring work to the unemployed, or to be successful in their projects. And they too are subject to the need to report success, regardless of the actual outcome.

While there may be an enormous need for a medical clinic or a school, a coherent argument can be made that these should come from within. If they are simply given as charity, they may simply fail from lack of personnel and sustaining funds. In certain Indian states and elsewhere, the main problem in health care and education is that the professionals who are hired for these jobs simply do not show up, yet continue to be paid. In other Indian states, where this failure is not tolerated, public health and education are much better.

The takeaway is that trying to improve the world is difficult and complex, and there are no guarantees that our efforts will make a worthwhile difference. Liberals’ focus on assistance for the poor everywhere does not assure that good will come of it.


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