A blupete Essay

Poverty and Morals, Part 7 to blupete's Essay
"The Siren's Song"

I mean, now, to address a great problem which has long occupied the minds of practical statesmen and popular philosophers: the conflict between the rich and the poor: the conflict between those who possess property and those who do not. It is a conflict as old as time.

But first, let me say, before we get started with this discussion, that it is necessary to keep separated in one's mind two different concepts: the economic problems of production and distribution of wealth, and the moral principles of right and wrong.

Now, the thing that is thrown in the face of anyone who prefers freedom over collectivism, is, that such a course (no state intervention) is cruel and uncaring for the disadvantaged and the poor. The truth lies in just the opposite direction. Collectivism, as is so easily demonstrated, is a recipe for crime, corruption and a plastered environment. And it is, while it lasts, a system, which, as a general proposition, sucks up our scarce resources to such a point that little is left for those, who the collectivists say, should receive our collective help. The collectivist system, as has been demonstrated, is but only a method by which we transfer resources from the disadvantaged and poor to those who expound on the virtues of a collectivist system.[12]

Aside from the fact that there is an unacceptable slippage and waste when the state plays Robin Hood, there is the moral question of whether we should, by law, be forced to give up our property in favour of our neighbour? This leads us to a discussion of one's moral duties.

The moral system, again a natural system which runs without intervention, is sustained by two opposite principles of attraction and repulsion. These principles working in the heart of a normal person (the vast majority of us) lead us to do things for our fellow man; such as to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, care for the sick, and enlighten the ignorant. A moral duty springs from the heart of the observer and is personal to that observer and comes about as a result of his or her experience, tradition and/or culture. A legal duty, I should distinguish, is that which is imposed upon a person from the outside, by a person or group who has coercive power over the law abider. The breach of either a legal duty or a moral duty will bring forth a penalty. In the case of the moral duty, the proscription of the penalty comes from within the person, himself or herself, its breach, in normal people, will bring on a feeling of shame and the fear of disfavour which may flow from friends and/or family. A penalty or a punishment imposed from without and as is proscribed by the law is what compels a person to obey law.[13] As to moral duties: each man must be his own judge, in each particular case, as to whether, and how, and how far, he can, or will, perform them.

We can all agree on the ends, which might well be summed up in words, "Distributive Justice." A number of us might also agree that to each his own "Moral Desert." A fact with which we must all come to grips, is, that there is inequality in the world and it is neither determined by, nor reconciled with, any deliberate moral judgments.

Poverty, according to the OED, is the "condition of having little or no wealth or material possessions. It is a state of indigence, of destitution, of want; ... Having few, or no, material possessions; wanting means to procure the comforts, or the necessaries of life; needy, indigent, destitute; ... so destitute as to be dependent upon gifts or allowances for subsistence." The OED continues and points out that such a concept of poverty can be expressed in "various degrees, from absolute want to straitened circumstances ..." As Malthus observed in 1798, "poverty is relative." Most all of us can feel, to one degree or another, the pangs of "poverty" as we look to our richer neighbor. Sure, now, anyone of us will be able to draw a line between those who just want more and those who are in straitened circumstances. Sure, anyone of us will have no problem drawing a line. The lines of all those who care to draw them, will not, however, fall to the same spot on the continuum. These lines will be all over the place and never will we be able to eliminate feelings of indigence from the general population and much damage can be caused in the try.

Much of the analysis in respect to poverty applies equally well to the disabled or disadvantaged that exist amongst us. One of us will point to a neonate who needs hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of our help, both at its moment of birth and throughout its cerebral palsied life; and another of us will point to the child who did not have a full breakfast this morning. For myself, I believe in charity; and, I believe you and I ought to help the poor and disadvantaged; each to give to the person, and to the degree, as each of us might determine. On no account should we employ the coercive and corrosive authority of the state to achieve charitable objects, as the state cannot achieve such objects.[14]

Any examination of the state's role in relieving poverty will reveal, not only the impossibility of such a task, but will further reveal, that in its tinkering, the state can only exacerbate the condition and make more widespread the existence of the evil which it wishes to get at (known as "The Law of Unintended Consequences"). What will become obvious to any researcher is the harmful effects of state assistance on personal character. Handouts, it will be observed, weaken the will and the capacity of the individual to escape from their lower state within the economy. It has been argued[15] that money is the only ultimate teacher of discrimination and judgment in learning to choose the objects and services required in everyday living and in developing self-respect in the rebuilding of character. "Free" state services, instead of leaving people to contend with the opportunities and challenges of life and thus obliging them to build their own list of choices, have simply deprived them of the occasions to exercise judgment between alternatives in education, medical care, housing and providing for their old age. The solution is not further increments of state-provided services that require no effort by those who are in the best position to know and to provide the kind of assistance needed for others or for themselves.

The people who will relieve the poor and disadvantaged in our society can only be those who have a real heart for the matter. Those who can best identify the situation are the very same as those who are best able to bring forth the cure. The people who are in the best position to know and to provide the kind of assistance needed by those in need are those who are in the group which makes up the needful person's "family"; which, in the wider since, is that group to whom that person is attached. It cannot be expected that we can collectively respond to the emotions and needs of a stranger. Only an emotionally dependant person, a family member, can respond to the emotions and needs of a fellow family member. It cannot be expected that the normal family interaction can exist in the extended order of the wider society. While it is the notion of give and take that governs in any relationship -- either a family relationship or one that exists in the extended order -- in a family relationship we rely more on the notion of trust, simply because we have the repeated experiences of dealing with a particular member who now turns looking for help. We will extend emotional credit to a family member (and that too has its limits) but rarely to a "stranger" in the extended order.

The idea of human cooperation, and that which exists in the family system and that which is found in the extended system, is better dealt with under the topic of economics. Let me, however, express just a couple of thoughts on this topic at this place. First we go to a Chinese sage in the mold of Confucius, Mencius (372-289 BC): "The path of duty lies in what is near, and man seeks for it in what is remote." And, "Benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and knowledge are not infused into us from without." The plain fact is -- and the proof is all about us -- a gratuitous system intended to boost the family has just the opposite effect in that it diminishes the sentiment of parental responsibility. To bring a child into the world is to incur a grave responsibility, and no action of the State should tend to obscure the fact. To relieve parents from the costs of bearing and raising children will most emphatically diminish their motives for forethought. When government extends its "help" to parents and thus relieves them of their role to nurture their own children, and does so with coercive legislation (and let me tell you all legislation is coercive), passed in the name of progress; then the centre of gravity shifts in the moral world from the parent, to the State; and this undermines the foundation of national life by the deterioration of the family unit. This, of course, may very well fit some people's idea of the way the world ought to be run, that is to say, parenting is to be one of the roles of the state: a Platonic idea.[16]

I should not think it necessary to argue the proposition; but, inequality exists in both the "systems" that we have labelled capitalism and socialism; it is, just that inequality is easier to modify in a capitalistic system (for example the introduction of a negative income tax system or an inheritance tax). In fact, socialism is inherently one which promotes inequality: "The articulate, adroit and literate 'political' people extract more than the inarticulate, maladroit and illiterate 'domestic' people from the schools, hospitals, transport and other socialized services ..."[17]

A free enterpriser is not against the delivery of food to the hungry, or education and good medical care to all. All that a free enterpriser argues is that there is a better way to achieve such laudable objectives. No inference or a conclusion (Non Sequitur) can be made in respect to any difference in the ends to be achieved because one advocates a different means. Almost invariably, and it's a shame, those who advocate state altruism see themselves as saints and anyone who differs from them as inhumane monsters. If one objects to a thing being done by government, it should not be concluded that the objection is that it should not be done at all. To disapprove of state education is not to oppose education. To oppose state-enforced equality, is not to say one is against equality. These propositions are as absurd as stating that one is against people eating bread because he or she is against the state raising wheat.

Though they do not mean to be, and while one can only attribute to them the highest motives, socialists are enemies of the state. These do-gooding and meddlesome people, often by appealing to some of our finest instincts, and, too, to the insecurities deep within us all -- cause mischievous results. We should not allow ourselves to be guided, or governed by the principle that we should mostly do what we think is for the good of the body of society, - for the good of the whole, - for the good of others.[18] The same mischievous results are reached when one preaches that the object of government is to bring the most good to the most number; what the preachers fail to understand is that there is no good to be had out of socialism, none at all. As Winston Churchill said, "Socialism is the philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance and the gospel of envy." He added: "The inherent vice of capitalism is the uneven distribution of blessings; whereas the inherent virtue of socialism is the even division of misery."

Our objective is clear; and it does not take a brilliant mind, or long years of study to see what we must do. We must strive to increase the sum of private happiness of the members of society. It comes about, as I hope I have demonstrated, because of individual action, individual actions which are guided both by moral and legal duties. It cannot come about through the action of an extended group such as is government.

"The old idea of a powerful philosopher-king who would put into practice some carefully thought out plans was a fairy-tale invented in the interest of a land-owning aristocracy. The democratic equivalent of this fairy-tale is the superstition that enough people of good will may be persuaded by rational argument to take planned action. History shows that the social reality is quite different. The course of historical development is never shaped by theoretical constructions, however excellent... Under no circumstances could the outcome of rational planning become a stable structure; for the balance of forces is bound to change. All social engineering, no matter how much it prides itself on its realism and on its scientific character, is doomed to remain a Utopian dream." [Popper, The Poverty of Historicism (Routledge, 1969), p. 47.]


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