Bono Stumbles On Truth About Poverty
I’ve always liked Bono. Not only does he make good music, but unlike so many in Hollywood he actually seems to care about his chosen causes. Rather than strut and preen for the cameras or play partisan political games, he just goes about his business trying to help in the way he judges best. That’s respectable regardless of whether I share his policy approach, and I rarely do.
But now I have even more reason to like him.
Speaking at Georgetown University about the state of economic reality in Africa, Bono had this to say about poverty:
“Aid is just a stopgap. Commerce [and] entrepreneurial capitalism take more people out of poverty than aid. Of course we know that.”
Sadly, many of the college students present likely do not know that. And while we can ask ourselves why it matters what some musician says about economics and policy, the fact that it is coming out of Bono’s mouth will do more to get them to challenge their own assumptions than it would from someone like me. Culture, even of the popular sort, matters.
Though what was most likely a shocking realization for Bono after decades of experience with impoverished peoples is rather pedestrian for those of us in the free market movement. The failure of aid has been well covered by folks like Dambisa Moyo. She points out the perversion international aid system, whereby holding on to power in developing countries is a function of pleasing foreign aid givers, rather than their citizens. It is disincentive, in other words, for political accountability. Keeping the aid spigot open is more beneficial for those who desire power than improving that lot of the people.
Nor is how to improve the lot of the people a great mystery. Though it is hard. Essentially, it requires neoliberal institutions to provide the legal and political frameworks necessary to enforce basic rights – with property rights being among the most critical in terms of encouraging economic growth. Hernando de Soto did a great job examining the importance of property rights and access to honest and efficient legal system to encouraging wealth creation.
And let’s be clear about this point. Wealth is created. It is not the natural state of mankind. It is not something that absence of which is explained by some civilizational theft, exploitation, or the spread of capitalism, as it is fashionable to believe in certain circles. To paraphrase Tom Palmer, who delivered the most cogent argument on poverty I have yet heard, poverty does not need explanation. It is the natural state of mankind. The vast majority of humans that have ever existed have lived in grinding poverty. Wealth requires explanation. Only in very recent times in a historical sense have regular people had any wealth to speak of. And it hasn’t grown slowly, it as exploded. Explaining that is much more interesting than explaining poverty.