Theodore Dalrymple, British author and former physician, has an article, “Sympathy Deformed,” in the spring 2010 issue of City Journal. In it, Dalrymple, a social conservative and critic of the so-called welfare state, looks at modern approaches to poverty, specifically at how we define and then measure poverty. It is basically an argument against the redistributionist approach–that poverty is determined in relation to median national income (for example, a household making below 60 percent of the median) and the way to eliminate poverty is to redistribute resources.
“This definition, of course, has odd logical consequences: for example, that in a society of billionaires, multimillionaires would be poor. A society in which every single person grew richer could also be one in which poverty became more widespread than before; and one in which everybody grew poorer might be one in which there was less poverty than before. More important, however, is that the redistributionist way of thinking denies agency to the poor. By destroying people’s self-reliance, it encourages dependency and corruption—not only in Britain, but everywhere in the world where it is held.”
Dalrymple goes on to argue against state-run systems of all stripes from his experience as a doctor on a remote Pacific island, in Tanzania and in poor parts of England. While his easy dismissal of these systems and his subsistence-is-the-best-life implications only serve to further his own philosophical stance, Dalrymple’s article raises a few questions.
It seems sensible that, in order to alleviate poverty, we should first define it. Dalrymple seems to argue for including not only economic but also other “various kinds of squalor—moral, familial, psychological, social, educational, and cultural.” But who would determine what moral or familial poverty is? I have the feeling Dalrymple would be happy with that assignment.
At the very least, we should establish a baseline of who is poor and who isn’t. But how should we determine poverty if not as a percentage of median national income? And once we can establish who is poor and who isn’t, what then? What is the best approach to alleviating poverty? What part should governments play?