Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Inequality and Good Intentions

Copyright, The New York Times Company

A new book says good intentions are a barrier to equality and to progress among the world’s poor.

For most of human history, family incomes were barely enough to survive and life was short. But in “The Great Escape: Health, Wealth and the Origins of Inequality,” Professor Angus Deaton of Princeton writes that while economic progress allowed much of the world to escape poverty, “escapes leave people behind, and luck favors some and not others; it makes opportunities, but not everyone is equally equipped or determined to seize them.”

Professor Deaton also deals with the events after the great escape: that is, how the progress of some families and nations affects the prospects for progress of those initially left behind.

Imitation is one force and works in the direction of progress for all. The poor can look to the progress of others to embark on their own escape. Professor Deaton shows how the imitation of new methods has occurred, for example, with medical technologies that have allowed the residents of a number of poor nations to live longer than Americans did just a hundred years ago, and sometimes longer than Americans live today.

But new methods can harm those with vested interests in the old ones, and the vested interests can use their political power to block competition and progress. Professor Deaton explains how “the emperors of China, worried about threats to their power from merchants, banned oceangoing voyages in 1430,” adding, “Similarly, Francis I, emperor of Austria, banned railways because of their potential to bring about revolution and threaten his power.”

Progress begets inequality, and the resulting inequality can either encourage more progress or impede it, or both. Professor Deaton suggests that inequality in the modern United States has had both of these effects.

He points to a third influence of progress and inequality on outcomes for those left behind: good intentions. As part of the world becomes rich and no longer worries about day-to-day survival, it can look outward. Many residents of developed countries have a “need to help” those less fortunate.

But the attempts to help often – perhaps even usually – go awry.

As medical progress began to diffuse around the world, people stopped dying so young, and that made for an increase in population, especially in less-developed countries. Developed countries thought they would help poor nations by encouraging population control, based on the dubious proposition that more people means more poverty.

“What the world’s poor – the people who were actually having all these babies – thought about all this was not given much consideration,” Professor Deaton says, citing China’s continuing one-child policy as an example. He adds: “The misdiagnosis of the population explosion by the vast majority of social scientists and policy makers, and the grave harm that the resultant mistaken policy did to many millions, were among the most serious intellectual and ethical failures of a century in which there were many.”

Other types of foreign aid to developing nations have also been a disaster, he says, with “pictures of starving children being used to raise funds that were used in part to prolong war, or to N.G.O.-funded camps being used as bases to train militias bent on genocide.”

Professor Deaton’s book is primarily international in focus, and he insists that help for the American poor is different and more effective than aiding the world’s poor. Nevertheless, American readers may be left wondering how much aid to American poor, is, as Professor Deaton says, “more about satisfying our own need to help, and less about improving the lot of the poor.”

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