Praesidium

Monday, November 27, 2006

Poverty of Ideas?

Given we seem to have ended up with a Tory Labour government, I'd welcome a shift the other way from Cameron. And it seems that's what he's planning, though it was pointed out to me that the message seems somewhat confused.

"The current approach cannot succeed in substantially reducing relative poverty without unaffordable spending increases," Mr Cameron said.
(From FT)

"In the past we used to think of poverty in absolute terms - meaning straightforward material deprivation. That's not enough. We need to think of poverty in relative terms - the fact that some people lack those things which others in society take for granted. So I want this message to go out loud and clear - the Conservative Party recognises, will measure and will act on relative poverty."
(From ePolitix)

It sounds rather like a pledge to eradicate relative poverty. Aside from perfect equality, that seems impossible - if there's any difference in income/wealth, there'll always be some who have less and are therefore relatively poor.

In fairness, when they speak of relative poverty, politicians often have some measure in mind, like those below 60% of median income. Of course, statistics are no good for everything (as shown in a football context here), but at least that's a coherent goal.

I'd suggest it isn't necessarily the best one though. Personally I think (absolute) poverty is obviously far more urgent than mere inequality. To use the classic sufficientarian example, we're not bothered by inequalities between millionaires and billionaires. If any government could make sure everyone in the country had enough for a decent life, it would already be a big achievement.

Yes, of course poverty is to some extent relative to the needs or standards of society, but I think that variation can be dealt with by something like Amartya Sen's capabilities approach.

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