Reducing poverty

I’m big on reducing poverty, both locally and globally. (I do worry that more rich people will use more resources, suggesting that reducing poverty isn’t an unalloyed good thing. On yet another hand, only rich people can afford things like sequestering carbon or preserving habitat. It’s complicated.)

Since I’m interested in reducing poverty, I was interested in Lant Pritchett’s recent talk Everything you think you know about poverty is wrong.

Pritchett and I see pretty much eye-to-eye on how to have a rich country, I think.

These well-off countries have a productive economy, a government that is responsive to the citizens, a capable bureaucracy, and the rule of law.

This has interesting implications for global development, because these are all things where it’s very difficult to improve someone else’s situation. If a country has government by-and-for the elites, or a corrupt bureaucracy, it’s going to be poor—and there’s very little outsiders can do to help. One of Pritchett’s points is that things that seem like they might help, such as improving education, seem to do more harm than good—perhaps because well-educated corrupt bureaucrats are worse than ignorant ones.

His solution is for rich countries to create or expand guest worker programs, which I think is a poor idea.

It’s not that I don’t think it would work. A poor worker who came to a rich country and worked a couple of years could both support relatives back in the poor country and save up enough money to return home and start a business. That would relieve poverty both immediately and going forward. It would also produce another person with first-hand experience of the advantages of a less-corrupt society (as opposed to merely seeing the advantages of getting in on the corruption).

The main reason I think it’s a poor idea is that enforcing a guest worker program eventually requires a police state. Somebody has to check all workers—it’s the only way to identify those who aren’t legally entitled to work. Somebody has to make sure those whose permission to work has expired get fired. Those whose permission to live here has expired, but who don’t go home, become an underclass with all the usual problems of an underclass—crime, violence, oppression, disease. I’ve written about this before (see Missing the point on immigration).

There is also the issue of how guest workers affect salaries, wages, and working conditions of citizen workers (short version: I think it makes them worse).

The ideal solution, of course, would be for every country to be rich enough and free enough that people from all over the world would want to move there. But that just brings us back to where we started.

How to have a rich country

What makes a country rich? Hint: It has nothing to do with natural resources. Places like Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan prove that.

What makes a country rich? Hint: It has nothing to do with natural resources. Places like Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan prove that. (See also: How to Get Rich by Being Evil)

We’ve known how to have rich countries for a while now; Adam Smith laid most of the ground work in 1776 with The Wealth of Nations, and we’ve improved on it modestly since then. You need three things:

  1. Private property
  2. Free markets
  3. Rule of law

None of those things have to be perfect for a country to get rich. Look at what China and India have done over the past twenty years. Allow a little private property, reduce government regulation a little, and you unleash a lot of entrepreneurial activity. Pretty soon, you have a bigger economy, higher incomes, and a richer population.

What’s interesting to me is how important that third point turned out to be.




As the Soviet Union began to collapse, a lot of people were offering advice on how to free the economies of the formerly communist countries. Most of the advice had to do with getting state property into the hands of ordinary people in ways that would allow the greater productivity that private property and free markets allow.

There was a lot less focus on how to imbed the rule of law into the system. It was almost as if people figured that the shift from a police state to the rule of law would be easier than getting there from a state of anarchy. (A dumb idea, once you think about it.)

So, thanks to the unhappy experiments in Russia (and other places) we now know what happens if you have (some) private property and (moderately) free markets without the rule of law. You don’t get a rich country; you just get a lot of rich people.

This insight has been guiding me politically for a while now. Obviously, it would be great to be a rich person in a rich country, but few of us have that option. Pretty much by definition, most of us are going to be somewhere in the broad middle. But if you’re going to be in the broad middle, it’s a lot better to do so in a rich country.

Happily, we know how to have a rich country.




Note: This was originally written for Wise Bread, but they decided it wasn’t for them, so I’m posting it here. I’ve kept it just as I’d written it, including the “see also” link back to Wise Bread. And, since it was written for a monetized market, I’ve gone ahead and put some ads in this post, even though I don’t general monetize my blog. Somehow, the post seemed lonely without them.