Tuesday, December 13, 2011

McArdle on Poverty

A few weeks back I mentioned in passing that the Atlantic's Megan McArdle has an occasional habit of falling back into glibertarian hand-waving. Fairness demands I point out that when she avoids it--as this post on the intractability of poverty certainly does--she's first rate.

She points out that there are environmental constraints, but also bad choices, and (what too many writers on this subject don't get, but if you've ever lived in poverty you learn real quick):

It isn't that people can't get out of this: they do it quite frequently. But in order to do so, you need the will and the skill--and the luck--to execute perfectly. There is no margin for error in the lives of the working poor.
And that many decisions made out of fatigue, hopelessless, lack of information, or simply different priorities, lead to perpetuation of the problem.

It's a hard problem. Really hard. I don't have an easy answer any more than she does. But it's nice to see someone on the internet recognizing both sides of the problem, at least.

As adults they are the products of everything that has happened to them, and everything that they have done, but they are also now exercising free will. If you assume you know the choice they should make, and that there is some reliable way to entice them to make it, you're imagining away their humanity, and replacing it with an automaton.

Public policy can modestly improve the incentives and choice sets that poor people face--and it should do those things. But it cannot remake people into something more to the liking of bourgeois taxpayers. And it would actually be pretty creepy if it could.

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