The Energy of Poverty
Presidential candidate Rick Santorum drew fire from the usual suspects the other day for his remarks on the utility of inequality. A typical reaction was that of columnist Charles M. Blow in the New York Times, who accused Senator Santorum of "praising income inequality." Santorum was actually praising the value of individual and group inequity -- as a necessary motive force for hard work, competition, and success. Unlike the shallow reaction of the NY Times, Santorum's argument is underwritten by history, science, and common sense.
William Playfair (1759-1823), groundbreaking political economist, when discussing the rise and fall of individuals and nations, concluded:
The superior energy of poverty and necessity which leads men, under this pressure, to act incessantly in whatever way they have it in their power to act, and that seems likely to bring them on a level with those that are richer, is then the ground-work of the rise and fall of nations, as well as of individuals. ... [T]he triumph of poverty over wealth on the great scale as on the small, though very irregular in its pace, has continued without interruption from the earliest records to the present moment.
Playfair's contemporary, Adam Smith (1723-1790), underwrote the "poverty and necessity" argument in The Wealth of Nations. Smith concluded that individual economic effort, devoid of any larger social purpose, nonetheless contributed to a larger common good. Smith's "invisible hand" is the equivalent of Playfair's "triumph of poverty." For such men, progress was a function of initiative and competition.
A few years later, philosopher Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) and naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882) picked up the thread. For Hegel, progress in the world of ideas was a process of old ideas (thesis) competing with new ideas (anti-thesis), resulting, hopefully, in a better idea (synthesis), one which retained the best elements of the competitors. This commonsense historical formula, for Hegel, explained the evolution of intellectual and social institutions. In short, utility is discovered by trial and error. Ideas are necessary, but only a dialectical test, or competition, of ideas is sufficient.
Darwin applied a similar notion of competition to the natural world. He argued that improvement of microbes and monkeys alike was a result of conflict between and among the weak and strong, a kind of natural selection which insured the survival of the fittest. Of course, suggestions that Darwin's hypothesis might be applied in the human realm, today, is usually dismissed out of hand for reasons you might never see on the editorial pages of the NY Times. Applications of social Darwinism are politically correct only insofar as they do not touch the third rail of human physical and social development.
In any case, struggle or "natural" competition that might make men and women more competitive, hence improve them, is inhibited by the "visible hand" of modern government. Indeed, when enlightened social scientists, like Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY), suggested that inept entitlement programs create and sustain generational dependencies, such arguments are often dismissed as racism.
Closer to our times, the best scholars, such as Jacques Barzun, complain about the corrosive effects of artificial leveling -- that is, social promotions and affirmative actions, unrelated to merit or competition. Dr. Barzun may be too polite. The academic poverty of American teachers and students has gone from bad to abysmal since Barzun first wrote about the pitfalls of lowering school standards.
The most obvious artifact of merit in the American public school system is athletics -- where competition and achievement are the only measures of effectiveness. Unfortunately, sports thrive in a school culture where athletic standards are higher than academic standards for a diploma or a degree. Low expectations are the cruelest form of poverty.
Inequality and its symptoms, such as poverty, are value-neutral. Like weather, climate, and heritage -- these things are part of the human condition. And these are conditions that, in a meritocracy, can be overcome. Competition between unequals is the leitmotif of natural, social, and political history.
The NY Times and like-minded social theorists ignore the key sources of social motivation -- and then fail to reform those government programs, such as intemperate welfare and impotent public education, which actually make social and economic poverty possible.
The issues of inequality and justice are bound to dominate the coming electoral food fight where the table is set for another orgy of class warfare. Yet on Election Day, democratic equality will prevail nonetheless. Warren Buffett's vote will not be worth any more than that of his secretary. And if four more years of economic and social leveling are still on the table next spring; who is to say that poverty, like a good appetite, will not be the best sauce?
"You can't get rid of poverty by giving people money." - P. J. O'Rourke
G. Murphy Donovan writes frequently about politics and national security.