Monday, August 27, 2012

Paul Ryan and Joseph Townsend: Moral Theory of Poverty Alive and Well

Joseph Townsend in his Dissertation on the Poor Laws (1786) said, "Hunger will tame the fiercest animals, it will teach decency and civility, obedience and subjection, to the most perverse. . .  .  In general it is only hunger which can spur and goad the poor to labor."  

Sadly, we have not come as far as one would wish from that dastardly sentiment. George Gilder in our generation asserted that the poor need the spur of poverty in order to succeed. His 1981 bestseller Wealth and Poverty was popular in the Reagan administration

Republicans, including some of my relatives and friends, are not far from Townsend and Gilder. The idea is that the poor are poor or have no work  because they are shiftless, lazy, good for nothing idlers unwilling to put in a hard day's work for whatever someone is willing to pay them.

Conservatives tend to think that the unemployment problem would go away if people were only sufficiently eager to work,  make good personal choices, would work at available wages, and go where the jobs are. Their mega-solution tends to be "Personal responsibility."

Besides, that's the way the market works; not much the government can do.

 Karl Polanyi quotes Ludwig von Mises as saying if workers "did not act as trade unionists, but reduced their demands and changed their locations and occupations according to the requirements of the labor market, they could eventually find work." Polanyi's response is apt: "It is not for the commodity to decide where it should be offered for sale, to what purpose it should be used, at what price it should be allowed to change hands, and in what manner it should be consumed or destroyed." Karl Polanyi, The Great Tranformation,  176.

Witness the latest "abomination of desolation" -- the offering of Paul Ryan as a candidate for vice-president.  He is at heart a Townsend wolf redvivus though in more politically expedient sheep's garb.  He breathes the air exhaled  by von Mises,  Friedrich Hayek The Road to Serfdom, and  (gasp!) Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged.  See Paul Krugman, 

Alas, the moral theory of poverty is alive and well. We can only hope that it does not come to reside in the White House.

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