What is poverty? What are its causes? Is it a personal problem or a social problem or a political problem? Whose responsibility is it? What actions are needed to eradicate it?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines poverty as
1 a: the state of one who lacks a usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions b: renunciation as a member of a religious order of the right as an individual to own property
2: scarcity , dearth
3 a: debility due to malnutrition b: lack of fertility
Note the difference in definitions ‘1 a’ and ‘2’. The perspective of ‘1 a’ is social, egalitarian and materialistic. It emphasizes a comparison between the material possessions of people. It equates self respect with prestige and prestige with the possession of material values. It seeks to identify people in terms of class. By this definition, a worker in an industrial society who owns a car and is able to provide for his daily needs is nevertheless in poverty, simply because there are a large number of people who have bigger, better or more material possessions than him. If this definition is accepted, then it is in the nature of society for some of its members to be in poverty. Any attempt to eradicate poverty would then be a (necessarily futile) revolt against the nature of society. The nature of society cannot be a problem in itself and no further analysis of this definition is necessary (The fact that ‘1a’ ranks above ‘2′ is quite interesting but it is not the topic of this post).
This post will therefore be concerned with definition ‘2′ – poverty is scarcity. But scarcity of what? Scarcity of the values and conditions necessary for a proper human life. What are these values and conditions? Food, shelter and clothing are often considered to be the basic values necessary for life. But man needs to earn these values (and all others) by conscious, wilful and sustained effort and by the application of knowledge. Neither the effort nor the knowledge is automatic. Both are affected (to some extent atleast) by social and cultural conditions. In the absence of proper conditions, the lack of the basic values for life becomes endemic. This sort of poverty is a social and political problem and it is this that is the concern of this post – poverty as the lack of the social and cultural conditions necessary for man to flourish.
What are these conditions? The primary condition for a flourishing society is a respect for the mind. Man’s mind is his only tool of knowledge, his only judge of truth, and his only means of survival. All the values he needs to live, from basic material values like food, to abstract intellectual values like art, are a product of his mind. A respect for the mind has three aspects – rationality in ideas, egoism in ethics, and liberalism in politics. Rationality is the recognition that the mind is capable of understanding and dealing with reality. Egoism is the recognition that the mind (or self, or ego) is one’s greatest value. Liberalism is the recognition that the mind cannot coexist with force.
The primary cause for endemic poverty is a lack of respect for the mind, most commonly in the form of supernatural and religious beliefs. Supernatural beliefs destroy all three aspects of respect for the mind. By claiming that the truth is beyond the reach of the mind, they destroy rationality. By claiming that man’s ultimate purpose is something greater than his life (whether an after-life in heaven or a cosmic consciousness), they destroy egoism. By claiming that the truth is revealed only to certain prophets, they create figures of authority and destroy liberalism. Societies flourish only when some of their members are able to shake off these beliefs. Shaking off supernatural beliefs is not enough however. The many experiments in all kinds of socialism in the last century are a good illustration of this. The advocates and leaders of these experiments claimed to be rational and scientific even as they rejected egoism and liberalism. They only succeeded in plunging their societies into poverty and economic collapse. Rationality, egoism and liberalism are merely different aspects of the same philosophical outlook and it is not possible to practise them selectively. The only solution to endemic poverty is a culture of reason and the social and political institutions that are necessary to maintain it.
The crucial thing that must be understood is that endemic poverty is not just a lack of wealth but the lack of the conditions that make the creation of wealth possible. Unless these conditions are established, no amount of wealth redistribution will have any positive effect. Unearned wealth is not a solution to poverty but a catalyst for corruption and violence. It allows the unscrupulous powers that invariably rule irrational cultures to maintain their stranglehold on people by preventing their collapse. Over the past few years, there have been vigorous calls for action to end poverty by a certain date, mostly focusing on Africa. The proposed action consists of writing off loans and granting new ones to the corrupt and tyrannical regimes that rule most of Africa, the loans to be funded by tax payers in the developed world who are not responsible in any way for the irrational and primitive cultures in Africa. These calls for action are extremely repugnant – morally, practically, politically and economically. Morally repugnant, because they are attempts to achieve a sense of altruistic greatness, to be paid for by the forced redistribution of unearned wealth by selling unearned guilt to the people who produce that wealth. Practically repugnant, because a century of such attempts has shown that forced redistribution of wealth results in economic collapse and a loss of all individual rights. Politically repugnant, because such action can only be carried out by the further enslavement of productive individuals in a global welfare state, and because the beneficiaries of such action are corrupt and tyrannical governments. Economically repugnant, because such action consists of punishing success and rewarding failure.
This post is a call for action – not the action of donating to charities that help to sustain corruption and violence – but the intellectual action to discover, understand and apply the moral, political and economic principles that govern man’s life. An examination of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism is a good place to begin.
Note: This post was written for Blog Action Day 08. It is also available on desicritics.org with an independent comment section