We don’t have to ruin markets to do charity

This post is for Democrats and Republicans, not libertarians. Let’s take it for granted that we want to help poor people and we’re willing to use the coercive power of government to do so.* The trouble with the interventions below is so troubling that we don’t even have to bother about having a deep philosophical debate. I’m not trying to change your destination, I’m just trying to get you to get out of that explosive Ford Pinto.

Minimum wage, water pricing, education, and just about all of American health care finance involves distorting markets to give charity and/or gifts. Essentially, they change rules so that group X pays Y instead of Z with the hope that X can afford it and Z can do more good with the money than Y. But this indirect giving has serious flaws.

Take the case of the minimum wage: it’s supposed to help the working poor by making their boss and consumers pay a bit more for their services. Of course it might simply be to help interest groups, and that further raises the burden of proof for those who would prefer a minimum wage to less invasive alternatives.

So what is this less invasive alternative? Cash transfers. We’ve already got some imperfect versions of this. School vouchers, food stamps, and a host of other welfare programs. What I want to see is a simpler version that takes the best features of these programs to eliminate the problems created by market interventions.

The economics of this proposal are simple and important. Prices are essential to help people use resources wisely. Interfering with the market process makes those prices less effective at communicating information about value and opportunity cost. And with an interconnected markets, a small price control can lead to worse decisions being made all across an economy.

Simple economics tells us that if we impose a minimum wage (or give special tax treatment to XYZ, or whatever) then something’s got to give. It might be higher unemployment, it might be worse working conditions, or it might simply be that rich people are a little less rich than before.

(It’s worth remembering that rich people are people too; even lawyers. They can do good and bad things, and those actions determine their moral quality, not their wealth per se… we don’t want to redistribute wealth for its own sake, we want to do so if/because we think it will do some good. The hope is that the harm of a few bucks out of your pocket does more good for the poor people who get that cash. And no, it’s not possible for “corporations” to suffer; corporations aren’t people, but they are owned by people.)

Consider the case of feeding the poor. It’s not hard (even for non-economists) to imagine how imposing price controls on food could lead to shortages. If there’s one thing we learned from socialism, it’s that bread lines are bad. Food stamps are a much simpler and targeted solution.

We should prefer straightforward transfers over market intervention because it will do more good at less cost. More importantly, it is humbler–distorting markets requires a lot of information, transfers don’t.

Transferring money rarely jives well with American intuition, and that brings up an important bundle of issues: responsibility and social engineering.

Republicans, for all their talk about the importance of individual responsibility, seem unwilling to let the poor exercise it themselves. They’re sure that enough poor people will abuse the system that some bureaucrat needs to exercise responsibility for them. Similarly, Democrats want to ensure the dignity of the poor, but how is anyone supposed to remain dignified while navigating labyrinthine bureaucracy?

The left should like cash transfers because they can help those we want to help, and take advantage of the information available to those with intimate knowledge of their context. The right should like it because it can replace a series of bloated bureaucracies while returning responsibility to the poor. Everyone should like that it will be cheaper and more effective than what we’ve currently got while creating better prospects for long-run economic growth.

We should absolutely debate whether specific transfers are a good idea (particularly middle-income to middle-income transfers like higher ed subsidies, mortgage interest subsidies, etc.), but for those programs we ultimately take on, we shouldn’t shoot ourselves in the foot by trying to do good by screwing up markets.

*As an economics professor I get to see what economic superstitions recent high school grads have. I’m struck with the confusion between the health of government and the health of the country a government is supposed to be helping. A related pair of confusions is that what a government can do, it should do; and if something isn’t already happening, and might be nice, government should make it so.

Missing from these superstitions is that the fundamental feature of government is force. What differentiates government from any other non-profit organization, is that charities and associations can’t put you in jail if you choose not to behave as they see fit. But for the sake of clarity, let’s put aside that issue and just focus on how the government can help the poor.


3 thoughts on “We don’t have to ruin markets to do charity

  1. “The left should like cash transfers because they can help those we want to help, and take advantage of the information available to those with intimate knowledge of their context.”

    I won’t claim to speak for the left but there is a significant chunk of the left that couldn’t agree more; we would love a social safety net based on cash transfers. I’m dismayed by the recent outcome in Switzerland though….

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