Poverty and the State

Article by Gary Chartier.
Apologists for the state often suggest that the state is essential if people are to be protected against deprivation resulting from accident, disaster, or injustice. I’m not persuaded that they’re right that state anti-poverty programs are needed to deal with the problem of poverty. The problem of poverty is systemic; but eliminating the systemic injustice of the state (rather than tweaking this or that inequity while leaving others in place) could make the problem of poverty quite manageable in the state’s absence.

For one thing, states don’t treat recipients of the anti-poverty aid they disburse especially well. It’s important to avoid comparing idealized state practice with imaginary worst-case practice in a stateless society. If we focus on actual state practice, we find that poor people are not served particularly well by the state, and that states routinely intrude into the lives of recipients of state assistance, violating people’s privacy and seeking to regulate their behavior. People pay a high price for aid from the state.

In addition, states actively make and keep people poor. Licensing laws, zoning regulations, and similar restrictions make it hard for poor people to enter particular job markets and to operate businesses out of their homes. Without the state to put these kinds of restrictions in place, people would be less likely to be poor.

States also raise the cost of being poor. Building codes and zoning regulations raise the cost of housing, and so make it harder for people to find inexpensive homes. Some people are forced to live without permanent housing at all, while others must spend much larger fractions of their incomes on housing than they otherwise would. Agricultural tariffs raise the cost of food, the most significant portion of anyone’s budget. Without the state to make meeting their basic needs unnecessarily expensive, poor people would have more disposable income and would be more economically secure.

States increase the number of poor people in part precisely through some anti-poverty programs, which can create perverse incentives both for people to remain poor enough to qualify for government funds and for bureaucrats to keep people poor in order to retain their own jobs.

And states actively take money from poor people. Many poor people pay more in taxes than they get back in services under the state’s rule. These people would have more resources, net, in the absence of the state’s demand for tax money. In addition, many people are poor, or poorer, today because the state has actively stolen land and other resources from them or their ancestors or has sanctioned such thefts committed by the wealthy and well connected. The existence of a peasant class and of a class of displaced urban workers willing to accept employment on dismal terms is inexcplicable without reference to state violence or state tolerance for or endorsement of violence by the wealthy and well connected.

Further, support for poverty relief doesn’t just come from tax funds now, and there’s no reason to think no one would support poverty relief efforts absent the state. People give money to charitable causes over and above their tax bills today, despite the huge sums the state claims. There’s no reason to think they wouldn’t do so in a stateless society. It is naïve to suppose that the wealthy and powerful are opposed to state funding for services to the poor at present; the poor have far less clout than do the wealthy and powerful, and yet the state provides minimal services for poor people. There is no reason to suppose that wealthy and well connected people willing to see the state spend their tax money to support services for the poor would be dramatically less willing to contribute to the support of such services without the state. (Why do people give money to good causes, including voluntary programs that help the poor? Why do wealthy and well connected people endorse state spending on programs that provide services to poor people. Presumably for a combination of reasons, including [in no particular order] compassion, social norms, the desire for good reputations, the desire to avoid bad reputations, and the desire to avoid social disorder. All of these reasons would be operative in a stateless society.)

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