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Samizdata quote of the day

There are no causes of poverty. It is the rest state, that which happens when you don’t do anything. If you want to experience poverty, just do nothing and it will come.

– Madsen Pirie explaining the folly of Common Error No. 61

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37 comments to Samizdata quote of the day

  • permanentexpat

    Dr. Pirie has the nail on the head hit.
    Those who blithely fling our (abominably taxed) treasure at sub-saharan Africa & other wherevers would do well to read his words:

    “Poor countries will not become wealthier because we give them some of our riches. They will climb out of poverty the same way we did, by producing and selling goods and services and by creating wealth in the process.”

  • Ian B

    Um, not a very useful observation though, is it? It’s equivalent to saying “there are no causes of starvation. Simply eat nothing and it will come.”

    But nonetheless a more broad perspective would indicate that starvation may be caused by outside forces beyond man’s control, such as a famine or some other environmental disaster. And perhaps more pertinently it can be caused by malign political control, which has been a significant cause of starvation this century.

    Likewise, if a government actively prevents people from working their way out of poverty; or if people have no capital with which to start businesses, or if they are held in poverty by a kleptocracy, or even if people are indoctrinated not to work their way out of poverty (as in the west, for instance) then we need a deeper analysis than this quote offers.

    It rather smacks of the Randian pomposity that makes liberarianism so unpalatable to a wider audience.

    As a nugget of wisdom it hasn’t really got much to offer, has it? One may as well have a quote of the day that says “if you don’t wear a hat, your head will get wet”. It’s true, but not very profound.

  • Brendan Halfweeg

    Ian, the implication isn’t that outside forces contribute to “doing nothing” being a viable alternative. The message is really that only through our own efforts can we rise out of poverty, and that studying what encourages effort is more valid than blaming the efforts of others for the poverty of some.

    If I wear a hat, and you don’t, it isn’t my hat wearing that causes you to get wet. If I wear a hat and am forced to run around chasing you with an umbrella, you’ll forget that hat wearing can protect you from getting wet and start to rely on me to keep you dry.

  • Zevatron

    Someone should send the Vatican the whole post from which this quote was taken. Three of the new announced “social” sins are contributing to the widening divide between rich and poor, excessive wealth, and most appropriately, creating poverty.

    Thankfully the cheek of the Vatican pronouncing “excessive wealth” to be a sin has not gone unnoticed.

  • Ian B

    The message is really that only through our own efforts can we rise out of poverty, and that studying what encourages effort is more valid than blaming the efforts of others for the poverty of some.

    That may be the message that you read into the quote, but it isn’t what the quote actually says-

    There are no causes of poverty… If you want to experience poverty, just do nothing and it will come.

    Firstly the denial of causation is directly opposed to “studying what encourages effort” since without causation there is presumably no encouragement nor discouragement of effort.

    The more pernicious part of the message is the declaration that the poor of the world are “doing nothing”. Many of the world’s poverty stricken are working harder, in worse conditions, than we can possibly imagine, scratching an existence from subsistence farms or even scavenging rubbish dumps, just as many poor people in the west are working very hard at manual jobs.

    Perhaps we should have a list of “Common Errors About Poverty” and No.1 could be

    “Darkies are lazy”.

    Let’s get real here. People in the west, visibly to all, receive different degrees of renumeration for similar input of effort. The same is true worldwide. The problem is what people are doing and what they have the facilities to do, not how much they do. No doubt somebody who earns a living writing aphoristic commentary considers themself a harder worker than a third world farmer staggering along behind his oxen and praying the rains won’t fail. I disagree.

  • Evan

    The quote is much more enlightening if you follow the link.

    We should ask what are the causes of wealth and try to recreate and reproduce them. When you ask the wrong question, “What causes poverty,” you end up with wrong answers. People fall into the trap of thinking that the wealth of some causes the poverty in others, as if there were a fixed amount of wealth in the world and that rich people had seized too large a share of it.

    “Doing nothing” can be read as laziness, but it can also be read as doing nothing productive. If I dig a hole all day and then spend the next day filling it in, I may work very hard, but I will not accomplish anything. It is the output in results that matters much more than the input in effort. A playboy who is naturally extremely good at a difficult task will earn more than some who works very hard at something but remains inept. It may not seem just on a small scale, but the natural is much more valuable to society.

  • Ian B

    Three of the new announced “social” sins are contributing to the widening divide between rich and poor, excessive wealth, and most appropriately, creating poverty.

    ontributing to the widening divide between rich and poor

    Indeed, that’s meaningless.

    excessive wealth

    We may not believe that, but various bits of christianity have frowned on wealth historically. “The love of money is the root of all evil” and all that. So it’s hardly a new departure.

    creating poverty.

    It’s quite possible for people to create poverty, i.e. for the actions of one individual to impose poverty on other individuals, and from a religious perspective it probably should be a sin. Think Mugabe.

  • Ian B

    The quote is much more enlightening if you follow the link.

    Yes, but it’s a quote so should require no further contextualisation.

    Even so, the article is frankly just trite. While some poverty is due to the “lack of doing” of its sufferers, much is caused by the malign intervention of others. It says little more than “people without jobs need jobs” or “cold people need to get warmer”.

    For instance, in your quote there is the implication that it is the fault of people asking “why is there poverty?” that leads people to conclude that there is a fixed sized cake. That simply isn’t true. To ask why poverty exists can lead to all manner of illuminating answers. The causes of people believing in a fixed sized economic cake are down to the belief system they had before they even asked the question. On that point alone the article is just plain wrong.

  • Max

    “true, but not very profound.”

    Ian, you are the master of true, but not very profound.

  • Ian B

    Well up yours Max.

  • Nick Timms

    I think the article is really rather good and I am glad that it got to be SQOTD. When I read the article on the ASI blog I thought ‘what an excellent way of putting that’. So much so that I have repeated it to several people today and, I think, made them also see that the whole concentration on the causes of poverty thing is a massive red herring.

    It is important to use the best words and phrases that you can to describe concepts because too many popular concepts cause false assumptions because of the words and phrases being used. That sounds rather circular but ask any marketing person whether the words being used make a difference when trying to sell something.

    Ian B, I think you almost entirely missed the point.

  • Laird

    I generally agree with Ian B, but in this case I think he is just wrong, and each additional post is merely an increasingly feeble attempt to extricate himself from an erroneous and untenable position.

    The quote posted at the beginning of this thread may have been too truncated, but in context (as shown by Evan) it is profound. If you’re asking the wrong question you’re bound to get either a wrong or a meaningless answer. That’s Pirie’s point. Abject, subsistence-level poverty is the natural state of Man, and if we’re to eliminate it we should be enquiring into the causes of wealth.

    Ian would do well to remember the First Rule of Holes: When you’re in a hole, stop digging.

  • It is important to use the best words and phrases that you can to describe concepts because too many popular concepts cause false assumptions because of the words and phrases being used. That sounds rather circular but ask any marketing person whether the words being used make a difference when trying to sell something.

    Exactly, and the quote failed spectacularly in doing just that. The article itself is better, and has its heart in the right place, but still fails in the propaganda department. For example, I rather think that “the wealth of some causes the poverty in others”, not because “there were a fixed amount of wealth in the world and that rich people had seized too large a share of it”, but because wealth can be used to create/influence political power, and that power can be used to acquire more wealth at the expense of others.

  • Ian B

    Perhaps one of my detractors would care to point out which part of what I said is wrong, rather than offering generalisations about holes?

    Dismissal of an entire argument on such general grounds is generally an indicator that the person doesn’t have any specific refutations.

  • Brad

    At the root, the problem really is that terms such as wealth and poverty are collective terms. They round everyone up and allocate terms to subgroups based on assumptions as to what needs and wants are (instead of determined freely within a market). If the definition of poverty is not having what you feel you need or want, then we’re all in poverty to some degree. Who decides what is a need and what is a want, and what lack of needs satisfaction warrants the term poverty? Ultimately both terms are value-judgement laden terms, and just like pornography, you may know it when you see it, but it still isn’t hard and fast.

    ———————————————-

    I hardily agree that through human action, property rights, and specialization more articles of value have been created for more people. That is the ground up approach I think the quoter is driving at.

  • I agree that poverty is difficult, if not impossible to define, (although we do know it when we see it, it is real). That said, I think that one quality that may help partly define poverty is that real poverty is not temporary. For that reason, I think it is more helpful to discuss social mobility rather than poverty in itself, just because it is definable and measurable.

  • Ian B

    I think it’s quite possible to define poverty in absolute terms. We may say it is lack of the necessities of life. What are the necessities of life?

    A food supply adequate to maintain health. A shelter which is comfortable and warm, and sufficient clothing. That pretty much covers it.

    If we imagine a prehistoric tribe of hunter gatherers perhaps- they have sufficient food for health from an abundant environment. They have huts, primitive by our standards, but which are dry and warmed by abundant freely gathered fuel. They have that clothing which they need. They may live in jungle, forest, tundra or arctic waste, but their lifestyle is stable and adequate for their needs. They don’t have plasma TVs, but are not “poor”. There is no poverty.

    Now move on a while. Their population has expanded and the environment now can’t sustain them as hunter gatherers. They develop agriculture, and then a more advnaced society, which becomes stratified. Each family now owns a small plot of land which they must attempt to grow enough food on. A chief, his henchmen (the aristocracy) and a priesthood subsist by expropriating produce from everybody else, and own as much of the land available as they wish, both of which they impose by threat of force. Many of the people are on a borderline of adequate nutrition, their dwellings are rude with inadequate fuel, their clothing ragged, and the upper castes deny them both social mobility and the possibility of expanding their landholdings. We now have rich and poor, wealth and poverty.

    The first example (the hunter gatherer band) is the “natural state of Man”, not the bare subsistence level of the latter.

    It should be pretty clear to any libertarian that the poverty in the second example has causes, one of which is the kleptocratic social structure. You can’t just handwave it away, riding past on your Randian white horse telling the peasants to work harder and sneering at them as moochers when they demand grain from the King’s granaries. It’s not that simple. Socialists recognise the problem, but get the wrong answer and make it worse. Too many libertarians pretend to solve the problem by denying it even exists.

  • Evan

    The tone of this thread has quickly devolved, and for no apparent reason.

    The point of the article is a valid one, and the slogan is a good one to keep in mind, but seems to assume too much from the reader. Most people in the world are economically illiterate, and routinely ignore the fact that wealth must be created before it can be distributed. Moreover, most people ignore the role governance plays in either encouraging or discouraging the creation of wealth. Even the greatest entrepreneur or captain of industry would be on the edge of starvation, were he born in North Korea.

    The article is part of a crucial idea, but one that is difficult to summarize in bumper-sticker form. It could help create prosperity, but it will be an uphill battle. Humanitarians could ask, “How do we reduce the burden that government places on people who live in the rough part of town? How could we better protect their property and streamline entrepreneurship?” but they would much rather ask, “How much money do we need to throw at the problem to make them become like us?”

    And I will grant that the quote could be interpreted in rather a pretentious(Link) way.

    Maybe a better slogan would be, “What has government done to prevent this person from creating wealth for himself?” In the modern West, the answer will usually be something like: heavy taxation, professional licensing requirements, locking children into a failing school, over-regulation, failure to protect private property, etc, etc, etc.

  • Ian B

    Evan, if you think that the “tone” of the thread is less than it should be, I’ll draw your attention to the start of the article in question-

    61.”It is important for us to understand the causes of poverty.”

    No. There are no causes of poverty

    That’s just plain wrong, isn’t it?

    I know what the man was trying to say, or at least what (like everybody else here) I presume he was trying to say, but that’s not what he actually said. It’s no good writing an article with the presumption that your readers already know what you mean and will apply that interpretation. That’s not what the purpose of writing is.

    Poor countries will not become wealthier because we give them some of our riches. They will climb out of poverty the same way we did, by producing and selling goods and services and by creating wealth in the process.

    Indeed. But they will only do so when they and we understand why they are failing to do so, and that means understanding the causes of that, which is the same thing as understanding the cause of their poverty.

    Poverty is a lack of resources. That may either be because the person is too inept to acquire them, or because outside forces are preventing them from doing so.

  • permanentexpat

    Knowing well that the devil is in the details, I don’t intend to get into a discussion where both ‘sides’ have obvious merit.
    Known , as I am, for my naïvete, I would just like to ask this question: Why are South Korea & the Asian tigers where they are, as least presently, & why is sub-saharan Africa where it isn’t?…if you take my point.

  • Ian B

    permanentexpat-

    I’d say, many reasons, but the one we can do most about is that sub-saharan Africa has been mercilessly preyed upon by marxists and neo-colonialists of the left (a problem which is getting worse, not better thanks to the UN, NGOs, etc etc) who actively use their enormous resources to prevent them developing a thriving market economy.

    The Asian tigers didn’t suffer that to the same degree.

  • Poverty is a lack of resources. That may either be because the person is too inept to acquire them, or because outside forces are preventing them from doing so.

    That is as close to a definition as I have seen so far – well done.

  • Shannon Love

    The idea that poverty is the base state of humanity makes more sense if you look at poverty in absolute materialistic terms instead of as being relative to other human beings.

    After all, by material standards, animals live in material poverty. 10,000 years ago, all humans lived in wretched absolute poverty. The greatest, most enlightened empires of history were by modern standards cesspools of poverty, oppression and injustice. Even the wealthiest people in the world a century ago in many respects (such as medical care) led impoverished lives compared to even a poor person today.

    So having very little or no material control over one’s environment is the natural rest state for humanity. We’ve been clawing our way up for millions of years. The “rich” are always those on the cutting edge of human progress. As such they always represents the exceptional and the unprecedented. They require explanation whereas the “poor” are merely those living in the previous state of development.

  • The “rich” are always those on the cutting edge of human progress. As such they always represents the exceptional and the unprecedented. They require explanation whereas the “poor” are merely those living in the previous state of development.

    Yes, but only if you replace the word ‘rich’ with the word ‘powerful’, then the poor are not always “merely those living in the previous state of development”, but sometimes are those who are forced to stay in that previous state. You cannot merely observe “the natural state of Man”, (to borrow from Ian), and ignore human progress, and the fact that some humans are forcibly prevented from taking part in it.

  • Ben

    You quoted the least inspiring portion of that passage. I very much like this:

    The unusual condition is wealth. This is what changes things. We should ask what are the causes of wealth and try to recreate and reproduce them. When you ask the wrong question, “What causes poverty,” you end up with wrong answers. People fall into the trap of thinking that the wealth of some causes the poverty in others, as if there were a fixed amount of wealth in the world and that rich people had seized too large a share of it.

  • Yes, that is a much better quote.

  • CFM

    There seems to be some confusion of the micro with the macro here.

    Micro: Self-reliant, ambitious, focused individuals will remain impoverished (or get shot) when living under a regime which believes itself capable of controlling all aspects – outcomes – of society. Ian is right – think Zimbabwe.

    Macro: A society – ruled by a minimalist government – that respects individual liberty and trusts the people to care for themselves will fail and be overthrown if the populace feels they are entitled to have all their needs, and wants, provided by a mommy-government, and that they have a right to said care without working for it. Ian’s detractors are right – we’re proceeding smartly toward demonstrating this in the West. Give it time.

    Leave out either the micro or the macro, and the quote is meaningless.

    Both the government and the governed must understand and practice the principles of liberty for the quote to be – profound. The progress of the Anglosphere countries demonstrated this nicely for the last two or three centuries. Compare Anglosphere living standards in 1700 with those in 2000.

    Unfortunately, collectivist termites are eating away at the foundations of that progress, and all the “good intentions” in the world will not save us from the proven result of statism/collectivism. On our current path, we’re doomed.

  • Marco

    There are no causes of poverty

    Sorry, that’s wrong. Poverty is causes by bad men with guns or bad ideas. Poverty is caused by governments.

    Of course we should study that.

  • Shannon Love

    Alisa ,

    Yes, but only if you replace the word ‘rich’ with the word ‘powerful’, then the poor are not always “merely those living in the previous state of development”, but sometimes are those who are forced to stay in that previous state.

    Power and material wealth are the same thing. Asking why one group becomes powerful and another not is to answer the same question as to why one group is rich and another poor.

    It is peoples natural state to be powerless as well. People who acquire the ability to dominate others do something new and different. Its that difference that needs to be studied.

    Every human group without exception has used whatever power it possessed to dominate whomever else it could. The behavior is universal. The only important question is why group A was able to dominate group B and not the other way around.

  • Shannon Love

    The first example (the hunter gatherer band) is the “natural state of Man”, not the bare subsistence level of the latter.

    You seem to have an overly romantic view of hunter gatherers. Most hunter gathers spent 25%-50% of their lives borderline or actively starving. The idea that primative man lived free in and eden is not supported by the archeological evidence. Civilized peasants lived lives of great luxury by comparison.

  • Shannon Love

    Perhaps we should think of the problem like this:

    Suppose you have 10 regions in the world. 9 regions are poor and 1 is wealthy. The 9 poor regions have many behavior similarities to each other but all differer significantly from the single rich region. Further, the rich region used to be poor and behave just like the poor region.

    Wouldn’t it be logical to suppose that the secret to wealth lay in the behavior of the rich region and that the poor regions represent the baseline behavior.

    Pirie is simply asking us to stop treating poverty as the anomaly and instead treat wealth as the anomaly.

  • James

    It should be pretty clear to any libertarian that the poverty in the second example has causes, one of which is the kleptocratic social structure. You can’t just handwave it away, riding past on your Randian white horse telling the peasants to work harder and sneering at them as moochers when they demand grain from the King’s granaries. It’s not that simple. Socialists recognise the problem, but get the wrong answer and make it worse. Too many libertarians pretend to solve the problem by denying it even exists.

    If I recall correctly that particular problem was eventually resolved…

  • Max

    “Suppose you have 10 regions in the world. 9 regions are poor and 1 is wealthy. The 9 poor regions have many behavior similarities to each other but all differer significantly from the single rich region.”

    “Pirie is simply asking us to stop treating poverty as the anomaly and instead treat wealth as the anomaly.”

    Exactly right. Israel is embedded in Arab poverty. What is different?

  • “One may as well have a quote of the day that says ‘if you don’t wear a hat, your head will get wet’. It’s true, but not very profound.”

    Well, it acquires very considerable heft in a time when government is forcing me to pay for other peoples’ umbrellas.

    Get it?

  • Shannon:

    Power and material wealth are the same thing. Asking why one group becomes powerful and another not is to answer the same question as to why one group is rich and another poor.

    Of course it is. I just wanted to stay clear of the rhetoric of the fixed wealth fallacy.

    I get the idea behind the article, and I agree with it. It’s (again) the rhetoric I have a problem with.

  • Brendan Halfweeg

    It is a mistake to confuse “the power of influence” with “the power of coercion”. Everyone can wield either, the wealthy obviously have more resources to dedicate to influence, and the state has the legal monopoly on coercion. The primary problem for most countries is when the state is willing to wield coercion on the basis of the influence of the wealthy. Influence is in itself is not coercion.

  • I’m puzzled by the misinterpretations of this simple quote.

    Many “human rights declarations”, including the UN human rights charter, define a right to “dignified existence”, i.e. a right to be relieved of poverty.
    For example:
    “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services,”

    Madsen Pirie is saying that you can’t have a right to “a standard of living” since you were not born with one.
    You were born poor, and while you have a right to be free to acquire wealth, you have no natural right to wealth. (To the wealth of others).

    Since the idea of “entitlements” is so widespread, Madsen Pirie’s quote, negating that idea, is meaningful and important.