How to Get the Poor Off Our Conscience

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How to Get the Poor off Our Conscience

John Kenneth Galbraith

I would like to reflect on one of the oldest of human exercises, the process by which over the years, and indeed over the centuries, we have undertaken to get the poor off our conscience.

Rich and poor have lived together, always uncomfortably and sometimes perilously, since the beginning of time. Plutarch was led to say: “An imbalance between the rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of republics.” And the problems that arise from the continuing co-existence of affluence and poverty–and particularly the process by which good fortune is justified in the presence of the ill fortune of others — have been an intellectual preoccupation for centuries. They continue to be so in our own time.

One begins with the solution proposed in the Bible: the poor suffer in this world but are wonderfully rewarded in the next. The poverty is a temporary misfortune; if they are poor and also meek they eventually will inherit the earth. This is, in some ways, an admirable solution. It allows the rich to enjoy their wealth while envying the poor their future fortune. [Harry Crews’s “Pages from the Life of a Georgia Innocent” discusses the romanticizing of poverty.]

Much, much later, in the twenty or thirty years following the publication in 1776 of The Wealth of Nations–the late dawn of the Industrial Revolution in Britain–the problem and its solution began to take on their modern form. Jeremy Bentham, a near contemporary of Adam Smith, came up with the formula that for perhaps fifty years was extraordinarily influential in British and, to some degree, American thought. This was utilitarianism. “By the principle of utility,” Bentham said in 1789, “is meant the principal which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question.” Virtue is, indeed must be, self-centered. While there were people with great good fortune and many more with great ill fortune, the social problem was solved as long as, again in Bentham’s words, there was “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Society did its best for the largest possible number of people; one accepted that the result might be sadly unpleasant for the many whose happiness was not served.

In the 1830’s a new formula, influential in no slight degree to this day, became available for getting the poor off the public conscience. This is associated with the names of David Ricardo, a stockbroker, and Thomas Robert Malthus, a divine. The essentials are familiar: the poverty of the poor was the fault of the poor. And it was so because it was a product of their excessive fecundity: their grievously uncontrolled lust caused them to breed up to the full limits of the available subsistence.

This was Malthusianism. Poverty being caused in the bed meant that the rich were not responsible for either its creation or its amelioration. However, Malthus was himself not without a certain feeling of responsibility: he urged that the marriage ceremony contain a warning against undue and irresponsible sexual intercourse–a warning, it is fair to say, that has not been accepted as a fully effective method of birth control. In more recent times, Ronald Reagan has said that the best form of population control emerges from the market. (Couples in love should repair to R. H. Macy’s, not their bedrooms.) Malthus, it must be said, was at least as relevant.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, a new form of denial achieved great influence, especially in the United States. The new doctrine, associated with the name of Herbert Spencer, was Social Darwinism. In economic life, as in biological development, the overriding rule was survival of the fittest. That phrase–”survival of the fittest”–came, in fact, not from Charles Darwin but from Spencer, and expressed his view of economic life. The elimination of...
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