Sunday, March 05, 2006

Poverty stinks

After a heads up from Quaequam I've posted the following comment to Duncan Brack's essay on meeting the challenge.

Was it ever a secret that poverty is related to poor health outcomes? Of course it is related. And a large part of that relationship will be causation of poor health by poverty, although there will also be elements of causation the other way, and third factors causing both poor health and poverty.

The question Duncan misses is to what extent it is absolute rather than relative poverty that is a cause of poor health outcomes. The biggest factors impairing health, are poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking and drinking - are these consequences of poverty? - yes, to an extent.

But Duncan’s argument is not that povery stinks and we should get rid of it. It is that inequality stinks. Being on the bottom rung of the ladder is a cause of stress. The thing is that every ladder has a bottom rung, unless it is lying flat on the ground.

Now I would agree that both absolute and relative poverty do matter and should be tackled. They are not, of course, the only things that matter, so the question is how much. Duncan argues for more equality. How much more? Japan and Sweden are held up as examples. Are they equal enough, or do all the same arguments still apply to them?

It may be right to demand more of something that is good, such as equality, but if you ignore the downsides, and you don’t say how much more equality you want, then what you have is a very weak argument. Not to mention a politically terrifying unlimited aspiration for redistribution.

I absolutely agree that people in absolute poverty have very little freedom, and so supporters of freedom like the Lib Dems should fight against that poverty. What is not so clear is how much relative poverty restricts freedom.

Duncan defends the 50p top rate policy - the proceeds of which were almost entirely recycled to the middle classes, doing nothing about poverty or inequality.

It is dangerous to try to wish away the fact that prosperity brings better outcomes and better opportunities. Prosperity is not the problem, it is the solution. The largely symbolic 50p policy suggests that it is the problem.

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