When choice doesn't matter
Charles asks some provocative questions in his post today about the role of government versus the power of the market to lift people out of extreme destitution.
But his approach, which focuses on individual responsibility and government constraint, begs the question by assuming, first, that all government action counts as a constraint on liberty and, second, that all individuals are capable of personal responsibility.
This account is not baseless, but it leaves little space for one reason people may suffer: structural barriers to opportunity and liberty.
For example, the New York Times article he cites describes the plight of India's poor as follows:
Landless and illiterate, drowned by debt, Mr. Bhuria and his ailing children have staggered into the hospital ward after falling through India’s social safety net. They should receive subsidized government food and cooking fuel. They do not. The older children should be enrolled in school and receiving a free daily lunch. They are not. And they are hardly alone: India’s eight poorest states have more people in poverty — an estimated 421 million — than Africa’s 26 poorest nati
ons, one study recently reported.
These are people who face endemic barriers to property ownership in an economy where land-owning remains a critical determinant of economic power. They have little to no access to adequate education. They are routinely victimized by elaborate and abusive loan schemes just to get enough to eat each day.
One could argue these people face such extreme circumstances that they are hardly able to make free choices. Each day is filled with Faustian bargains just to reach the next. Responsibility is meaningless in this context, because it depends heavily on choice. Absent choice – the liberty to set one's own course – responsibility cannot exist.
Similarly, government “constraint” only makes sense in the presence of real liberty. But the above description does not depict a situation of true liberty. It instead offers a portrayal of bondage, where circumstances constrain poor individuals far more than government ever could.
In this case, there is a fifth option: The poor are not able to be responsible, but government intervention in market failure can help them become responsible.
This view regards government action not as a constraint, but as a liberation–an intervention that enables free choice.
This image was used under a Creative Commons attribution license from Flickr user mckaysavage.