Poverty is the Natural State of Mankind

This post was authored by Spencer Lane

I saw the following photograph and caption on my Facebook feed recently (below), which naturally led to a lengthy discussion with the friend of mine who posted it. I thought it would be worth discussing why this caption is wrong (and make no mistake: it’s wrong), as is the kind of mindset that sees this and thinks “Man, that is so right! Resist!”


To be fair, the caption is half-correct: neither the EU nor Romanian immigrants caused the poverty of Victorian times, but neither was “greed” the cause of poverty either.

The whole premise of the photograph and caption is wrong. Poverty has no cause. Poverty is the default condition of mankind. In the words of Tim Worstall: “abject poverty is the natural state of mankind and it’s wealth that is the thing that needs to be created to end it.” Put simply: if you do nothing, you will be poor…. Guaranteed!

Abject poverty is the starting line. All humanity began poor. We are pitiful animals born into a cruel and indifferent world where resources are scarce and our ability to survive depends entirely on our ability to scavenge food and find or make some kind of shelter.

Only through hard (but mainly efficient) work and innovation has humanity been able to rise up out of poverty – and that only truly began 200 years ago. Unless and until wealth is created, people will live brutal lives of miserable poverty, either living as primitives, like the tribesmen in the deeper parts of the Amazon rainforest still do to this day, or toiling all their lives as subsistence farmers (as so many people unfortunately must do in much of Africa and Asia).

Nobody inflicted poverty on the world’s poor. Poverty in this sense has no cause; it simply is. Those people are poor because they have never not been poor; they have never had the chance to rise out of poverty either because wealth is simply not being created at all or not in quantities large enough to make the needed improvement, or else they cannot partake in wealth creation (or they have been deliberately excluded from the wealth creation process, more on that later).

Likewise, low wages have no cause; the wages started at zero! Before these children could collect a low wage from some factory or sweatshop, someone had to build that factory. Before that factory was built, there were no wages being paid at all and the only work available was grueling manual labor on a farm, which likely paid no cash wage at all (and entailed conditions no less grueling than those found in Victorian industry if perhaps a little less dangerous).

And as to being excluded from the wealth creation process, if “greed” is what “caused” those children to be poor and miserable….what’s the solution to it? Do we ban child labor? Well then how will those children ever rise out of poverty?

When you ban legal child labor, those children don’t suddenly become rich or have their needs taken care of; they remain poor, their families become less able to feed them, and if they live on the street, then many of them will turn to illegal work (pickpocketing, prostitution, chimney sweeping) where they will be exploited far worse than if they’d been employed legally in a mine or factory or sweatshop. No loving parents sends their child to work because they want to. They do it because they need to.

Unpleasant as it may seem, as unpalatable as it may be, those children are better off being paid a pittance in a horrible Dickensian factory than anywhere else (assuming they truly don’t have a better option, like school or a caring home, but of course: most desperately poor people don’t have those options at all). And lest it be forgot: the alternative to these children living in a city or being on the street is almost certainly not some idyllic childhood but a grueling existence of working on the farm (and do you really think rural children in that time period had to work any less than their urban counterparts?).

My friend, however, either understood none of this or rejected it. In his mind, that photograph makes perfect sense and my arguments were nonsense. After much debate, it subsequently emerged why: he has a different view of the world and a different moral lens than I do.

In his own words: “My mentality is that food, water, basic shelter and medical care should be put before excessive personal wealth.”

It is an astounding (to libertarians) admission but one which clarifies everything. Until he said that, I was struggling to understand why he didn’t understand or didn’t accept that poverty is simply the baseline, the point at which all humanity starts, and as such has no cause.

The reason he doesn’t accept that is because he believes that every human being has a moral obligation to provide every other human being with a basic standard of living.

To him, unless everyone’s basic needs are met, anyone with “excessive personal wealth” (and let’s not skip past the idea of there even being such a thing as “excessive personal wealth”) is causing people to remain poor; he does not regard anyone’s wealth as theirs, he sees all wealth as belonging to the collective, and therefore for someone to have more wealth than others means he or she must necessarily have deprived other people of it and have therefore caused those people to be poor.

It is important, I think, for libertarians or classical liberals to understand that a lot of people have this upside down way of looking at the world (actually, a very tribal way of looking at the world; this mindset would be perfectly fitting in a small band of hunter gatherers). We are a minority ideology—even in the United States, a country founded on classical liberal ideals—and so our lot in life is to persuade people and change minds, and it is a lot harder to persuade people if we don’t understand how they see the world and if we don’t “speak their language.”

Libertarians, even those who don’t have a detailed knowledge of economics, generally appreciate that wealth has to be created for people not to be poor, and out of a basic sense of fairness (if not a deep-seated respect for property rights) it follows that those who create wealth are entitled to keep it. The wealth they create is theirs, and they don’t owe anyone anything. For this reason, libertarians are often maligned as “greedy” or “selfish”, but this is merely the embittered accusation of the envious. How is it greedy or selfish to say I should get to keep what I earn and how is it not greedy or selfish to claim entitlement to someone else’s stuff?

In the future, however, I will have to remember that a lot of people do not hold this basic assumption about how the world works but instead cling to a distorted belief, that the mere existence of wealth justifies making sure everyone receives an equitable portion of it. Whether it stems from an anthropological impulse inherent to human psychology, the tribal mindset leftover from our evolution as hunter-gatherers, or whether it’s the result of years and years of conditioning by statist/socialist propaganda to drive support for redistributionist policies, I don’t know.

One thing is for certain however: not only does is this mindset a boon to redistributionist (“socialist”) policies and big government, but it is also preventing people from adequately understanding and appreciating how free markets work and how they liberate people from poverty. Considering how many modern libertarian arguments revolve around fetishizing free markets (and not without good reason), this may be a big reason why more people do not describe themselves as libertarian despite holding substantially libertarian beliefs.



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