Pro-virtue, pro-family economy

my Trade Tripper column in a weekend issue of BusinessWorld:

This is continuing from last week’s column (“We need better thinking on poverty and development”), which criticized the present “progressive” mentality of transforming government into some sort of large welfare administrator. And yet, with rising unemployment and underemployment, the weird logic is to pour even more money, on the hope that such policies will somehow eventually work. From a high of P62.6 billion, the government wants to go much higher: P78 billion for its Conditional Cash Transfer-Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) in the 2015 proposed budget.

Sadly, such is misguided. Whatever good those programs may initially have brought seems to have plateaued and could even be harmful to Filipinos.

There are lessons to be learned from a country that has even more financial resources. Five decades ago, the United States decided to launch its own anti-poverty campaign. And yet, as Ed Feulner relates, success never came: “That was $22 trillion ago... Yet the poverty rate is essentially the same as it was 50 years ago.”

The problem is the failure to understand the nature of poverty and the tendency to romanticize it. This Feulner effectively points out: “When most people hear that a family is living in poverty, they naturally picture people suffering from significant material deprivation... But government surveys show that many of those officially designated as poor are surprisingly well-off. Less than 2% are homeless, and only one in 10 live in mobile homes. The typical house or apartment of the poor is in good repair and uncrowded. Indeed, the typical ‘poor’ family has air-conditioning, cable or satellite TV, and a computer in the home. Forty percent have a wide-screen HDTV. Another 40% have Internet access.”

The scenario is pretty much the same here. And yet, despite the continuing ineffectiveness, the temptation to throw even more money got stronger. In the US, as Stephen White relates: “The federal government currently spends about $800 billion on 92 separate anti-poverty programs, yet the poverty rate today is higher than it’s been in decades.” Needless to say, our CCT program will meet the same fate.

The answer, I believe, is not in throwing money at people but at developing people. This was the implication of the study I mentioned last week (“Childhood family income, adolescent violent criminality and substance misuse: quasi-experimental total population study” by Amir Sariaslan and his colleagues, British Journal of Psychiatry, Aug. 21, 2014). As The Economist puts it: the findings “suggest that merely topping up people’s incomes, though it may well be a good idea for other reasons, will not by itself address questions of bad behavior. The second raises the possibility that the problem of intergenerational poverty may be self-reinforcing,” what with “the lack of impulse-control they engender also tends to reduce someone’s earning capacity.”

Hence, why I go back again to the idea of focusing on policies that foster, encourage and strengthen virtues and the traditional family. Virtue, of which the traditional family is the prime teacher, in people is what makes democratic societies work. As Michael Novak wrote: “The prospering of free societies depends on certain moral and cultural practices.”

So rather than have government stepping in and trying to supplant the roles that is rightly of the family and religious organizations, the doctrine of “subsidiarity” (which is embedded in our social thinking and even Constitution) should instead be vigorously applied to allow the family and such religious groups to do what they’re good at: developing upright citizens.

As Paul Ryan correctly points out with regard to the US setting but whose words could also be relevant here: “For too long, the federal government has tried to supplant, and not to support, the people fighting poverty on the front lines -- families, neighborhoods, community groups. In the fight against poverty, the people ultimately are the vanguard, and government is the rearguard. Government protects the supply lines. But it is the people themselves who take to the front lines.”

Subsidiarity works in tandem with the notion of the “common good,” a concept that many people seem to fantastically misunderstand. The best definition of common good can be found in John Finnis’ Natural Law and Natural Rights: “a set of conditions which enables the members of a community to attain for themselves reasonable objectives, or to realize reasonably for themselves the value (s), for the sake of which they have reason to collaborate with each other (positively and/or negatively) in a community.” Note the repeated mention of the attainment “for themselves” by the people.

The point: if our government would instead work harder to support the family and community groups, rather than striving to be the be all of everybody’s existence and have the people dependent on it, we might finally get somewhere in our efforts to deal with poverty.