- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 17, 2006

“China is lifting a million people a month out of poverty.” It is just one statement in an interesting new book titled “The Undercover Economist” by Tim Harford. But it has huge implications.

I haven’t checked out the statistics, but they sound reasonable. If so, this is worth everyone’s attention.

People on the political left make a lot of noise about poverty and advocate all sorts of programs and policies to reduce it but show incredibly little interest in how poverty has actually been reduced, in China or anywhere else.

You can bet the rent money the left will show little or no interest in how Chinese by the millions are rising out of poverty every year. The left was far more interested in China back when it was run by Mao Tse-tung in far left fashion — and when millions of Chinese were starving. Those of us not on the left ought to look closer at today’s Chinese rising out of poverty.

First of all, what does it even mean to say “China is lifting a million people a month out of poverty”? Where would the Chinese government get the money to do so?

The only people the Chinese government can tax are mainly the people in China. A country can’t lift itself up by its own bootstraps that way. Nor has there ever been enough foreign aid to lift a million people a month out of poverty.

If the Chinese government hasn’t done it, who has? The Chinese people. They did not rise out of poverty by receiving largess from anybody.

Only wealth can cure poverty. The Chinese acquired wealth the old-fashioned way: They created it.

After the death of Mao, relaxation of government controls over the market began — first tentatively, in selected places and for selected industries. Then, as those places and those industries began prospering dramatically, similar relaxations occurred elsewhere, with similar results.

Even foreigners were allowed to invest in China and sell goods in China. But this was not just a transfer of wealth.

Foreigners did not come in to help the Chinese but to help themselves. The only way they could benefit, and the Chinese benefit at the same time, was if more total wealth was created. That is what happened. But the political left has virtually no interest in wealth creation, in China or anywhere, despite all of their proclaimed concern for “the poor.”

Since wealth is the only cure for poverty, you might think the left would be as obsessed with creating wealth as with the redistributing it. But you would be wrong.

When it comes to lifting people out of poverty, redistribution of income and wealth has a much poorer and spottier track record than creation of wealth. In some places, such as Zimbabwe today, attempts at a redistributing wealth have redistributed poverty instead.

While the creation of wealth may be more effective for enabling millions of people to rise out of poverty, it provides no special role for the political left, no puffed-up importance, no moral superiority, no power to wield over others. Redistribution is clearly better for the left.

Leftist emphasis on “the poor” proceeds as if the poor were some separate group. But, in most Western countries, at least, millions of people who are “poor” at one time in their lives are “rich” at another — as the terms are conventionally defined.

How can that be? People tend to become more productive — create more wealth — over time, with more experience and an accumulation of skills and training.

That is reflected in incomes that are two- or threefold higher in later years than at the beginning of a career. But that too is of little or no interest to the political left.

Things that work for millions of people offer little to the left, and ultimately the left is about the left, not about the people they claim to want to lift out of poverty.

Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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