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Government aid programs tend to perform poorly, especially in developmental terms. In the U.S., anti-poverty programs keep the poor running in place, at best. Yes, they provide minimal income, but they seldom offer a way out and usually discourage it. Moreover, the administration of such programs diverts a significant share of funds to well-heeled civil servants and away from the intended recipients. Foreign aid programs are probably even worse, functioning as catch basins for funding corrupt officials. Progressives, in particular, persist in taking the paternalistic view that we must rely on government action to “care for” and “protect” the poor, able or not. Markets, on the other hand, are held to offer no promise in fighting poverty. In fact, the general assumption made by the progressive left is that markets exploit them.

The truth is that markets offer great promise for encouraging economic mobility. Arnold Kling offers a good conceptual construct in a recent post: while humans are often subject to irrational tendencies in their assessment of choices, their interactions in markets offer a way of smoothing irregularities and disparate bits of information, providing useful signals about the availability of resources and demands for their use. The result is a flow of information that best signals opportunity. Kling calls the process of market interactions the “collective mind”. Rather than encouraging individuals to fully participate in effective markets, free of intervention, we instead deny them the best opportunities for gain. The notion that the poor must be “protected” from markets is embedded in policies like wage and price controls, benefit mandates, overtime rules, drug laws, occupational licensing, and innumerable other harmful regulations. The poor should have the unfettered ability to avail themselves of the social efficiencies of Kling’s collective mind.

Last Thursday, Don Beaudroux’s “Quotation of the Day” was taken from an essay by Ludwig von Mises in which he characterized private property in a market economy as “property by consumer consensus”. In other words, consumers reward sellers who create value, and those rewards accumulate in the form of private property. Likewise, consumers punish poor performance, which has a cumulative negative impact on one’s ability to accumulate or hold onto private property. The benefits conferred by consumer preference do not stop with the owners of the firm. Others productively affiliated with the firm also reap gains in rewards, allowing them to accumulate private property. And of course, consumers are the beneficiaries in the first place: in their judgement the firm delivers value in excess of price. The key here is that free market rewards and penalties are deserved and based on productivity in meeting desires, and only the market can distribute property so efficiently. The able poor can certainly add value and thereby accumulate property, if only given the opportunity.

Jeffrey Tucker has stated that “Only Markets Can Win the War on Poverty” (ellipses are my edits):

The default state of the world is grueling poverty, universal insecurity, and short lives. When governments do come along, they nearly always serve themselves first. … Capitalism made huge progress toward the conquest of poverty. For the first time in history, the productive resources of society turned from serving mainly the elites toward serving the common person. This change alone began to flip the power narrative of social evolution.

And this revolution continued for two some two-hundred years, during which time the average life span expanded dramatically, infant mortality collapsed, incomes rose, and the great project of universal ennoblement achieved an unprecedented boost. And this trend continues today wherever markets are given freedom to function, property rights are secure, and people can associate and trade without molestation by the elites. … In short, capitalism made huge progress toward the conquest of poverty.

Markets are not harmful to the poor. To the contrary, as Tucker says, they have helped lift billions out of poverty around the globe. But government increasingly plays the role of big provider and arbiter of what can and can’t be traded, by whom, and at what price. The suspension of the market mechanism by this process denies the poor the opportunities made possible via participation in free markets, whereby Kling’s “collective mind” processes massive quantities of information and acts upon it spontaneously. But the “collective mind” concept, as a description of market interactions, is too simple: we know that individuals act on the signals provided by the market and are rewarded based on how effectively they do so. There is no doubt that the poor can do that too. It’s time to cast aside the paternalistic and destructive notion that the able poor must be insulated from markets.