The Conquest of Poverty
The words “Ryan” and “poverty” are almost never more than a few words apart these days. Here at TAC, and elsewhere in the politosphere, Paul Ryan’s views on government spending and poverty are just about all anyone can talk about. The main anti-Ryan talking point is that he is a heartless Objectivist who is fundamentally opposed to the interests of “the poor.” If the definition of “racist” these days is “anyone who is winning an argument with a liberal”, the definition of “Objectivist” these days might be “anyone who is winning an argument with a Catholic liberal.”
Personally, I don’t think Ryan is “against the poor.” But not for the reasons you might think. Many people are defending his budget on the grounds that it does not harm “the poor.” While I agree that his budget does not harm the interests of low-income Americans, this is not the primary reason I would defend Ryan’s ideology. I have a different reason.
I do not believe poverty exists as a meaningful category in the United States, with some exceptions that I will make clear as I proceed. Very few people in the United States are truly poor, and most of those who are live an environment of such wealth and opportunity that simply defining them as “poor” does not tell us much about their objective status. Lest I suffer the fate of Todd Akin for appearing cruel and insensitive to those who struggle with problems associated with poverty, let me clarify.
A little sociological and historical perspective is useful when thinking about the problem of poverty. When we think of “the poor” as they are written about in Scripture or by medieval thinkers such as St. Thomas Aquinas, we can’t help but transpose our own worldview onto their words. And yet this is a fundamental error. In the pre-modern world, most societies were made up of castes, as opposed to classes. A caste is a permanent position one occupies in the social hierarchy. A class, on the other hand, is a position that can change.
Rarely will one find an example in history that perfectly embodies any ideal type, and this applies to the caste/class distinction. It helps to think of these as opposite ends of a spectrum upon which different societies will be located. In Western history, elements of caste and class have been combined. In the pre-modern world, I think it is fair to say that castes were dominant over classes. The medieval world had three fundamental castes, for instance: those who work (peasants), those who fight (nobility), and those who pray (clergy). These were also thought of as “estates.”
But there were also classes, which reflected a degree of social mobility not found in many other parts of the world. A young man, a second son perhaps, could rise through the ranks of the clergy and possibly become a powerful magnate. Or a peasant could become a freeman and possibly strike out on his own as a farmer, a craftsman or a merchant. Thus the practical and moral benefits of freedom and independence for the individual were definitely known to pre-moderns. More immediately important for our purposes, however, is that during these times, “poverty” was often a permanent and fixed condition that could only be escaped by people with exceptional talents. That roughly 90% of the population would live in conditions of poverty and be required to perform hard labor was simply an unavoidable fact of life. Even Marx and Engels recognized the necessity of this arrangement as a precondition for the development of art, science and culture by the remaining 10% or so who did not have to live and work in such conditions.
I don’t want to overstate the conditions of the medieval peasant. Thanks to the influence of the Church, life was not “all work and no play.” The Church insisted on Sunday as a day of rest, on a cessation or reduction of labor during holy days and seasons such as Lent, and provided a vast system of relief for the destitute and medical care for the sick. She made the best of a set of hard social conditions brought about by economic scarcity. But the fact remains that most people live in conditions that anyone today would recognize as poverty. And yet, no one thought that its mere existence was evidence of a terrible injustice, since the limits of human productivity were more or less fixed by technological progress. Technology in turn hadn’t evolved much beyond its peak at the height of the Roman Empire. Simply put, there wasn’t enough power to create enough wealth to eliminate poverty. Thus poverty, by and large, was permanent and absolute.
All of this began to change with the Industrial Revolution. Suddenly the power of human labor would grow exponentially due to machinery powered by steam, coal, and other sources. What would have required 100 man hours of labor to produce before could now be produced in 100 minutes, possibly even less. The wealth of societies able to use this machinery would also increase exponentially. And now, for the first time in history, the poorest of the poor would have access to goods and services that would raise millions of them to middle class status almost overnight. This was the point at which a class system began replacing the caste system in the West.
Again, I don’t wish to oversimplify. Many of the aspects of the transition from the pre-modern to modern worlds are not laudable. The French Revolution was a series of terrible atrocities animated by a violent hatred for the Church. Many ideologies arose that glorified a conception of “progress” that denigrated the past (as opposed to respecting it and seeking to build upon it). And it is true that many people suffered as a result of displacement from a peasant way of life to an industrial way of life, though it is arguable to what extent. In the end, however, what occurred was the elimination of a permanently impoverished caste in Western societies, with one important exception: black slaves in the American South.
Of course, as the writings of Marx and other socialists emphasized, society was still divided into classes, and one of these classes would dominate (the bourgeoisie) while the other major class would be subordinate (the proletariat). But aside from charges that the former economically exploits the latter (a debate I don’t want to engage in right now), the truth was that social mobility between the two classes was greater than any that existed between castes in human history. Not only that, but even within classes there was a great deal of mobility. Depending on the time and place, a business owner might get by on very little while a worker might be able to sell his labor for an exceptionally high price.
Now, in our own time, economic scarcity in the basic goods and services required to live or participate in a society in a meaningful way has been greatly reduced. But it has not been eliminated, and it is doubtful that it ever can be. What this means in our context is that at certain times, depending on market conditions and other factors, part of society will relatively poor compared with the rest of society. Much of our policy debates are really centered around how to best deal with this condition of temporary relative poverty, and not what I call “poverty in the Biblical sense”; that is, permanent, absolute poverty. And yet even though this is what we are “really” debating, you wouldn’t know it based on the rhetoric, which invokes a picture of absolute economic hardship for tens of millions of Americans that justifies massive government interventions into the economy.
Now it goes without saying that Christians have a moral duty to contribute what they can to those who are in need. The way I often put it is, we have an absolute moral obligation to meet the human needs in front of us. We also have a duty to seek out ways in which our relative wealth can best be used. If we have a large family, we may have to focus on our families. If we are business owners, we can certain focus on charitable applications of profit. But what does Catholic Social Teaching have to say about the role of government?
[N]o one is commanded to distribute to others that which is required for his own needs and those of his household; nor even to give away what is reasonably required to keep up becomingly his condition in life, “for no one ought to live other than becomingly.”(13) But, when what necessity demands has been supplied, and one’s standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over. “Of that which remaineth, give alms.”(14) It is a duty, not of justice (save in extreme cases), but of Christian charity – a duty not enforced by human law. – Rerum Novarum, 22
This not only appears to go against what the most radical anti-Ryanites insist upon, but it really describes the way most of us already think and live anyway. Very few of the agitated middle-class leftists, Democrats, liberals, et. al. are living in rags because they have given the majority of their wealth to “the poor.” Something tells me that Chris Matthews, E.J. Dionne, and others on that side of the political divide are enjoying all of the perks and pleasures that an upper-middle class American lifestyle makes possible. Certainly they are enjoying more than “what necessity demands” and possibly far more than what their social standard requires – though I can also imagine these types thinking their social standing to be much higher than it really is.
The key idea here, though, is that charitable giving is not a duty of justice or a duty enforced by human law. The state has no obligation to confiscate and redistribute wealth in order to “help the poor” (assuming that this is what the aim really is). Nor do Catholics have an obligation to advocate for policies that would do as much, let alone castigate and anathematize other Catholics who object to the prudence and morality of such policies.
The exception, of course, is extreme need. And on this the argument for a welfare state may hinge. This is why I spent some time on historical exposition, though. In our modern context, “extreme need” is a temporary and relative phenomenon. It is arguable that the best, and perhaps the only institutions capable of discerning who is in “extreme need” are local. Thus I do not oppose local governments levying taxes for the purpose of emergency relief funds. I also believe that local governments should provide incentives for traditional marriage, because marital status is one of the most important factors affecting one’s economic status, in spite of the left’s aggressive attempts at social engineering to the contrary. The best “social safety net” is a family and gainful employment. Next best is a local community that cares, preferably one informed by basic Christian values. Only as a distant and rare third option should government exist in this capacity.
But this is a far cry from the establishment of a national welfare regime, which has the effect – among other things – of creating an illusion that one can make it entirely on their own with a little support from the state, an illusion shared by communists and radical feminists who would win “liberation” from the boss and the husband at the expense of becoming a dependent upon the bureaucrat. There is also the selfish, arrogant assumption that you and I have a duty to work and pay taxes to make this fantasy possible, though such idealists typically avoid all talk of costs and expenses until they are forced to address them.
I do not believe we are under any moral obligation to support this regime or the ideology that gave birth to it, though, like Ron Paul has often advocated, I would be in favor of a gradual transition away from it as opposed to an abrupt pulling of the plug.
In the end, the arguments of the leftist “social justice” crowd are self-defeating. Assuming that they really do care about the poor, and are not cynically exploiting such sympathies to provide a cover for the kind of radical social engineering that depends upon massive wealth redistribution, they are not doing them any favors by opposing capitalism and supporting aggressive economic interventionism. Free markets and technical innovation are what transformed poverty from absolute, permanent, caste-bound condition to a relative, temporary, class-bound condition. Hundreds of millions of lives around the globe have improved in terms of living standards, health, education and political liberty as a result of these processes.
What fuels the rage of the progressive is impatience – it hasn’t happened quickly enough for all. From there he erroneously concludes that those who have benefited did so directly at the expense of those who did not. And so in spite of all that has been achieved for the world’s poor by these historical processes, he would arrest them and possibly eliminate them altogether. It isn’t wrong to be frustrated by the hardship brought about by economic conditions. But it is insane to want to hinder or destroy the process that elevated half of mankind from abject squalor in the name of “helping the poor.”
For more on this topic, I recommend Henry Hazlitt’s book “The Conquest of Poverty.” You can read it in its entirety here.