Global war on poverty bad idea

By Tibor Machan: Syndicated columnist

Only one thing stops poverty. It’s wealth. And there is but one sure-fire way to gain wealth. Work.

Yes, some people get it by luck or accident, but such a path is quite undependable. So New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s wish that President Bush launch “a high-profile Global War on Poverty” is a bad idea.

Contrary to Kristof’s contention, it would not “be one American-backed war that nearly all the world would thunderously applaud.” Most of the world’s development economists would be extremely doubtful about such a “war.” Some, of course, do believe the way to eradicate poverty, anywhere and anytime, is to forcibly take from those who have wealth and transfer it to those who are poor.

This is indeed what President Lyndon Johnson’s infamous “war on poverty” consisted of, and it is also why it failed to rid America of poverty (as the recent catastrophe in New Orleans made so visibly clear). Indeed, if anything, that ill-conceived “war” drove the country further into economic malaise because it penalized the productive for being productive and made provisions for those who are not productive without teaching the vital lesson that productivity is the most reliable way out of poverty.

It is really quite elementary, Dr. Watson: Wealth is not manna from heaven in most of its manifestations. Even the little manna we do have handed us, by way of sunshine, oil reserves, forests, rain and other “free goods,” must be carefully managed or harvested for it to yield useful resources. In the absence of human ingenuity and diligence, there is simply no wealth.

But neither ingenuity nor diligence are cultivated by those willing if its fruits are systematically pocketed by thieves. And the government — any government at any level — that robs Peter of wealth so as to hand it to Paul, deserving or not, is perpetrating theft as sure as would be one’s next-door neighbor who came around to steal one’s groceries and cook dinner for his family.

There are, no doubt, some folks in dire straits both at home and certainly abroad, but the main obstacle to their improving their lot is not the absence of foreign aid from the United States. Decades of foreign aid has simply disappeared, often into the Swiss bank accounts of politicians in the targeted poor countries, while economically ignorant — though in some areas erudite enough — people continue to plead for more.

Instead, what should be done is to teach the poor to produce and to insist that the politicians in their nations enact the proper legal infrastructure — namely the firm protection of private-property rights and the integrity of contracts — within which productivity is encouraged and securely rewarded. This is just the remedy that in time managed to reduce poverty in the United States and in other portions of the globe.

Freedom House and other think tanks, such as the Cato Institute, The Heritage Foundation and the Canadian Fraser Institute, have provided evidence of these ideas for decades — adding to what experience and common sense teach most of us. Yet some of the most influential people keep encouraging governments to play a phony Robin Hood game — phony because Robin Hood did exactly the opposite, taking from government to return taxes to the poor — and thus waste trillions of dollars and all the ingenuity and diligence that has created it.

Kristof, maybe in his eagerness to follow his colleagues at The New York Times, like the editorial writers and the columnists Paul Krugman, and Bob Herbert, refuses to see that the one decent policy decision of the current Bush administration has been its tax-cut policy, one that has contributed to the continued growth of American productivity. If only Bush had the same idea about government spending who knows what immense economic growth the country would see and how many jobs might be encouraged at home and exported to regions of the globe where the only things that can help the poor are steady, market-driven entrepreneurship and employment.

Sadly, these prominent folks are either economically Neanderthal or blinded by their anti-Bush hatred, so they keep imploring governments to do just exactly what will keep poverty rampant. They will urge robbing some to help others, which helps none, period.

Those, in turn, who do need extra help need to obtain it from voluntary, non-governmental agencies where it is more likely that some serious scrutiny will guide who is to receive the help.

Tibor Machan advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at
Machan@chapman.edu