Is A Preferential Option for the Poor Bad for the Poor?
Admittedly this sounds like a silly question, but it is effectively one that Kyle Cupp is asking over at Vox Nova:
Putting aside whether or not the theory actually works in practice, a question I don’t here wish to debate, does trickle-down economics embody what has been called in Catholic circles the preferential option for the poor?
I’m inclined to answer that it does not, that while helping to generate pools of capital at the top may benefit the poor through a process of “trickling down,” the theory itself embodies a preferential option for the rich.
Kyle wants us to put aside the question of whether “trickle-down” economics actually works, so for purposes of considering the question we can assume that trickle-down does make the poor a lot better off than any alternative. So what Kyle is really asking here is whether a preferential option for the poor might require us to make the poor worse off (e.g. by rejecting trickle-down economics).
To me the answer is obvious: uh, no. And I confess that that I don’t find Kyle’s argument (that trickle-down is inconsistent with a preferential option for the poor because it also helps the rich) to be very compelling. After all, it’s a preferential option for the poor that we’re talking about here, not a preferential option against the rich. If we paid doctors to given free health care to the poor, this would benefit the doctors, many of whom are rich. Does it follow that paying doctors to give free health care to the poor is inconsistent with a preferential option for the poor? Obviously not.
That’s not to say I can’t sympathize with where Kyle is coming from here. Regardless of how it helps the poor, trickle-down economics just sounds bad (given that it’s a term only used to describe the views of one’s opponents this is not so surprising). But this is just a matter of rhetoric. During the last election I got pushed polled, and one of the questions was whether I supported Candidate X’s plan “to gamble with our Seniors’ future by privatizing Social Security.” When I told the telemarketer who was giving the survey that actually I thought that sounded like a great idea he laughed, because of course it didn’t sound good; the question had been deliberately designed to make the plan sound as bad as possible. But the fact that you describe a proposal in one way rather than another shouldn’t make a difference as to whether the proposal is actually a good idea. A rose by any other name and all that.
If you described “trickle-down” economics in a more neutral or positive manner (say, as the idea that for people to have jobs you first need to have employers) my guess is that some of the opposition would go away. And if you wanted, you could make out a decent argument that it is the left who really subscribes to a trickle-down theory (wealth is taken from the rich and given to civil servants and bureaucrats, who eventually pass some of it on to the poor; when you look at the percentage that actually does reach the poor, it’s fair to describe it as a trickle). But that hardly means that government programs are inconsistent with a preferential option for the poor.
All of which is to say that you ask sensibly ask whether something is consistent with a preferential option for the poor without asking whether it is good for the poor. You can’t ask whether trickle-down economics is consistent with a preferential option for the poor without asking whether or not it works.