Poverty, choice and coercion
Should the poor be allowed to choose?
The New York Times reports that malnutrition and starvation remain stubbornly entrenched decades after India’s Green Revolution, which modernized agricultural practices, massively increased agricultural yields and eliminated the specter of famine.
The existing government food distribution system relies on bureaucratic rationing, through which the poor are given ration cards to purchase food from government-run distributors. It is notoriously inefficient and plagued by corruption. Some reform proposals emphasize improving monitoring and delivery within the system. Others favor entirely dismantling the system, replacing it with vouchers or cash payments to the needy.
What is at play here is the familiar tug of war between those who favor government centralization and those who prefer letting the market go to work. This conflict applies to many areas in which the government has some interest in addressing the needs of the poor, from school reform to healthcare.
In every case, there is a choice between the direct government provision of services and consumer choice. There is a moral side to this question also: government action always brings with it some constraint or direction, while markets do not.
Assuming that a society wants to help the least fortunate, how should it be done? Can the poor be trusted to responsibly make decisions in their own interest, or do they lack the resources, sophistication, or will to do so?
At least four extreme views outline the boundaries of these questions:
(1) The poor are irresponsible and their choices should be curtailed or directed by those with the appropriate authority.
(2) The poor are irresponsible but nonetheless should not lose the ability to choose when possible.
(3) The poor are responsible and therefore need not be constrained.
(4) The poor are capable of furthering their own interests but should be constrained anyway.
Choice or coercion can be combined with responsibility or irresponsibility. Supporters of centralized and paternalistic solutions either implicitly believe that the poor are irresponsible or believe so strongly in public order as to think it necessary for the government’s preferences to dominate.
Supporters of consumer-choice and market-based solutions either implicitly believe that the poor are responsible or so strongly prefer personal choice as to tolerate irresponsible behavior.
These basic assumptions and preferences have vast implications for our policy choices. Should the poor receive insurance under Medicaid, or should they receive the equivalent value in cash or vouchers? Should we direct more funding to failing public schools or otherwise try to mandate improvements, or support vouchers and charter schools? Should India’s government attempt to feed the poor directly or give them the cash to purchase their own sustenance?
Image by Flickr user leetucker used under a Creative Commons Attribution License