In the short term, if you want to alleviate hunger then the obvious thing to do is give the starving food to eat. If you want to stop people getting wet then give them that kagoule we’ve just mugged off the trainspotter at the end of the platform. And if people are poor, poverty being not having money, given them some money.
This is, obviously, not the long term solution to any of these problems: that good ol’ mixture of capitalism and free markets is what has alleviated our own poverty, is what is alleviating it for billions more currently and will, estimated by the end of this century, abolish absolute poverty once and for all for our species. But as we know, the long and the short term are rather different: telling people to farm better does work but doesn’t alleviate the immediate suffering of famine.
All of which leads to this interesting paper at Vox. Making a poiint that we’ve made here a number of times: whatever it is that you’re trying to do do please make sure that you’re doing it efficiently. That is, achieve your goal at the least possible cost. They’re rather more worried about inequality than we are (we reserving our ammo for dealing with what we see as the real problem, absolute poverty, the solution to which see above) but they’re making absolutely the same point about efficiency:
Other countries also have similar programmes that are sold as pro-equality but are inefficient or even harmful for that goal (IMF 2014a). In developing countries, measures that tax, subsidise, or price-regulate food and energy tend to be highly inefficient tools for improving the income distribution, and frequently even have the opposite effect. A disproportionately small share of social spending goes to the poorest 40% of the population (IMF 2014b). Of the $400-plus billion that countries spend on fossil fuel subsidies each year, far less than 20% of the benefits go to the poorest 20% of the population (International Energy Agency 2011). Conditional Cash Transfers, on the other hand, have proven highly effective – they reach the poor and promote education and health.
Don’t try to rig markets, don’t try to freeze or subsidise prices. If you want the poor to be able to consume more just give them money so that they can buy more.
This has domestic lessons for us in the UK as well. The much talked about idea of “predistribution” is exactly this. Attempting to cock up markets so as to gain a more pleasing distribution of consumption. It won’t work for it’s, by definition, cocking up markets. Redistribution is a more efficient method of achieving that consumption levelling goal. And if the nation has run out of appetite for more redistribution then, well, that’s just tough, isn’t it? As it does appear to have done…