All Commentary
Monday, October 1, 2001

What Government Can Do: Dealing With Poverty and Inequality by Benjamin I. Page and James R. Simmons

A Bitter Pill for Lovers of Freedom

University of Chicago Press · 2000 · 309 pages · $29.00

Reviewed by Martin Morse Wooster

One of the major triumphs of liberty in the 1990s was in welfare reform. In the 1980s, scholars—notably Charles Murray—who contended that welfare demeaned those who accepted it and ensured lifetimes of dependence on the dole were condemned as mean-spirited extremists. But that view is now the consensus.

Although socialists are in retreat, they have not been totally routed, as political scientists Benjamin I. Page and James R. Simmons show in What Government Can Do. Page, who teaches at Northwestern, and Simmons of the University of Wisconsin (Oshkosh) have prepared a treatise that provides comfort to the statist and a bitter pill for lovers of freedom.

“We find,” they write, “that government can act effectively and that it can do so in ways that can serve economic efficiency, contribute to economic growth, and preserve individual liberty, while at the same time reducing poverty and enhancing equality.”

Page and Simmons support all of the programs created during the New Deal and the Great Society. They argue that the problems of the welfare state can be solved by raising taxes on the wealthy and then channeling the additional taxes into expanded welfare state programs. Except for farm subsidies to large corporations, they would maintain or expand all welfare programs.

In the authors’ view, the solution to every social problem is to give the government more money. Social Security and Medicare’s impending bankruptcy? To them, that’s an accounting fiction that can be fixed by raising Social Security taxes on the well-to-do. Collapsing schools? Teachers aren’t paid enough. People on the dole for decades? Raise the amount they are given.

Moreover, Page and Simmons want to expand the welfare state in two areas. They consider, and reject, the notion of a guaranteed national income, but support a national “right” to housing, health care, and food. They call for Washington to establish a “food card” so that everyone from Bill Gates to a homeless drunk will be entitled to a food ration. They also want the government to establish a network of medical clinics for the poor, as a prelude to nationalized health care. It’s unabashed old-style socialism.

The authors also want the state to reduce income inequality through punitive taxation on the rich. “Everyone should be helped to have the same expected future income at every point in life,” they write.

But the evidence Page and Simmons use to advance their case is the research of other political and social scientists. This leads to a book so dull that the authors frequently tell their readers to skip over large sections.

Their citations are, of course, selective. They claim that Head Start is a resounding success, using as evidence two small decades-old studies that have never been replicated. They claim that teachers would be eager to work in inner-city schools if they were paid more, but they ignore the mountain of evidence (collected in such books as Susan Moore Johnson’s Teachers at Work) that most teachers quit not because of pay, but because of mind-numbing bureaucracy.

Page and Simmons contend that the poor primarily suffer from a lack of income. But if the problems of poverty were only about money, we would have conquered poverty decades ago. As the old joke goes, we fought a War on Poverty in the 1960s—and poverty won. That’s because the problems of the poor are primarily moral and spiritual, not economic. A government check cannot teach a poor person to dress for a job interview, or how to show up for work every day, or how to refrain from insulting the boss on the job.

As for inequality, as Michael Novak argues, it’s better to make the poor richer than the rich poorer. One way to do this is to remove regulatory barriers that prevent the poor from starting their own enterprises and keep them from obtaining employment. Alas, it never occurs to the authors that less government might enable the poor to succeed without state coercion. And they never trouble themselves to discuss nongovernmental alternatives or the terrible disincentive problems of the welfare state.

What Government Can Do is a weak and unpersuasive book that inadvertently shows that less government, not more, is the best way to help the poor become responsible, productive, and prosperous.

Martin Wooster is an associate editor of The American Enterprise and the author of Return to Charity: Philanthropy and the Welfare State.

  • Martin Morse Wooster is a visiting fellow at the Capital Research Center, a contributing editor to Philanthropy, and a education book reviewer of The Washington Times.