Thursday, July 16, 2009

The War on the Poor

Radical thinker Ivan Illich called it the "war on subsistence." He looked on both liberal programs and conservative industrialization as a deliberate effort to obliterate traditional ways of living.

You can see the process working in the descriptions of Third World education in The Beautiful Tree by James Tooley. The west comes into a Third World country with money and expertise and gets the government to implement a universal, compulsory education system. But it doesn't work. The newly middle-class teachers don't give a damn about the poor, who they regard as ignorant and uninterested in education. And the government just uses the western money to build a patronage system.

But in the Third World it turns out that the poor do want education. They want it so much that they turn away from the "free" government system and spend their own money on school fees at below-the-radar private schools.

The schools that they patronize are, of course, by middle-class standards, dirty and inadequate. There are often no bathrooms for the children, and no playground. And as for computers, forget it. But the schools, operating on a shoe-string, almost equal middle-class private schools in academic performance, at least according to James Tooley's research.

This is not the first time that the poor have been shafted like this. Ever since the middle of the 19th century the middle class have been on a mission to clean up "slums." The middle class hates the ramshackle housing that the poor build in the industrial cities. The slums operate outside the rules and the proper planning and land-use laws. For one thing, there is a lack of basic sanitation, water, sewage, and garbage, darling.

But the poor build and live in the slums for a simple reason. They are cheap. An immigrant to the city can get a job in the city and live cheaply in the only way that he can afford. Unless she is to become a government benefit recipient.

The welfare state model insists that everyone live and work at a middle-class standard. Middle-class rules for houses. Middle-class rules for education. Middle-class rules for health care.

But when you insist on middle-class rules you force the poor to become dependents. Because the poor can't afford to live by middle-class rules. Not if they want to live in proud independence.

This is the great challenge for conservatives. If we want to replace the welfare state with something better we have to figure out how to let the poor live in proud independence. Can that be squared with basic decency in the life of the poor?

The way that the modern poor live is by camping out in industrial society, living in old dilapidated housing, working in the informal economy, cadging health care where it's free or nearly free. The standard response to this by progressive people has been outrage. How can we allow the poor to suffer so? But it is clear that the progressive response, to dish out benefits controlled and organized by the middle class, has turned the working poor into the underclass, has destroyed the lower-class family, and has turned the progressive class into a corrupt political elite.

There's gotta be a better way. And it's up to conservatives to find it.

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