(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)
Annie Lowrey’s NYT magazine article The Future of Not Working is well worth reading. The article describes a Silicon Valley funded experiment with a universal basic income in Africa. Personally I’m skeptical of the notion that human labor is going to become obsolete, and I am even more skeptical of the idea of a universal basic income when we currently stand tens of trillions short on previously made commitments. Nevertheless, this article is well worth reading to the very end, as it contains a powerful insight. With the benefit of modern cell phone banking account technology, this group has been giving aid in the form of small cash payments instead of whatever the aid organizations happen to want to give out. This allows people to work things out for themselves:
The residents of this village had received money in 2013, and it was visibly better off than the basic-income pilot village. Its clearings were filled with mango plantings, its cows sturdy. A small lake on the outskirts had been lined with nets for catching fish. “Could you imagine sitting in an office in London or New York trying to figure out what this village needs?” Bassin said as he admired a well-fed cow tied up by the lakeside. “It would just be impossible.”
Many popular forms of aid have been shown to work abysmally. PlayPumps — merry-go-round-type contraptions that let children pump water from underground wells as they play — did little to improve access to clean water. Buy-a-cow programs have saddled families with animals inappropriate to their environment. Skills training and microfinance, one 2015 World Bank study found, “have shown little impact on poverty or stability, especially relative to program cost.”
All across the villages of western Kenya, it was clear to me just how much aid money was wasted on unnecessary stuff. The villagers had too many jerrycans and water tanks, because a nongovernmental organization kept bringing them. There was a thriving trade in Toms canvas slip-ons: People received them free from NGO workers and then turned around and sold them in the market centers. And none of the aid groups that had visited the villages managed to help the very poorest families.
The article goes on to explain that cash payments have been abjured in aid programs in the past. It would deprive beneficiaries of the “benevolent guidance” of very well-meaning people, and would also require fewer such people. It however seems entirely obvious that the Kenyan villagers in this article know their own needs much better than the distant would-be do-gooder, and that they are far more capable of making good use of resources. All of this very much brings to mind the Douglas Carswell quote (via Matt Ridley):
The elite gets things wrong, says Douglas Carswell in The End of Politics and the Birth of iDemocracy, ‘because they endlessly seek to govern by design in a world that is best organized spontaneously from below.’ Public policy failures stem from planners excessive faith in deliberate design. ‘They constantly underrate the merits of spontaneous, organic arrangement, and fail to recognize that the best plan is often not to have one.’
Education Savings Accounts anyone?