Much of the discussion around poverty centers on who is to blame.
“Few people believe that accidents or diseases have perpetrators,” writes Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.”
Yet “discussions of poverty consist mostly of arguments about whom to blame for it.”
Wrong question, Steven believes.
Poverty “needs no explanation. In a world governed by entropy and evolution, it is the default state of humankind,” he writes.
What does need to be explained? As Adam Smith first recognized more than two centuries ago: Wealth.
“Poverty has no causes,” writes economist Peter Bauer. “Wealth has causes.”
It’s tempting to think that the current level of wealth has always been around.
Not so, Steven notes: “In a world governed by entropy and evolution, the streets are not paved with pastry, and cooked fish do not land at our feet. But it’s easy to forget this truism and think that wealth has always been with us.
“History is written not so much by the victors as by the affluent, the sliver of humanity with the leisure and education to write about it.”
2: Our tendency is to romanticize the past.
“We are led to forget the dominating misery of other times in part by the grace of literature, poetry, romance, and legend, which celebrate those who lived well and forget those who lived in the silence of poverty,” economist Nathan Rosenberg and legal scholar L. E. Birdzell Jr. observe.
“The eras of misery have been mythologized any may even be remembered as golden ages of pastoral simplicity,” Nathan and L.E. write. “They were not.”
Steven shares vignettes from economic historian Johan Norberg about the reality of life less than 200 years ago: “If you could afford to buy bread to survive another day, you were not poor.
“In wealthy Genoa, poor people sold themselves as galley slaves every winter,” Johan writes. “In Paris, the very poor were chained together in pairs and forced to do the hard work of cleaning the drains. In England, the poor had to work in workhouses to get relief, where they worked long hours for almost no pay. Some were instructed to crush dog, horse and cattle bones for use as fertilizer, until an inspection of a workhouse in 1845 showed that hungry paupers were fighting over the rotting bones to suck out the marrow.
Another historian, Carlo Cipolla, writes: “During epidemics of plague, the town authorities had to struggle to confiscate the clothes of the dead and to burn them: people waited for others to die so as to take over their clothes—which generally had the effect of spreading the epidemic.”
Modern life is a recent phenomenon.
“The endurance of poverty and the transition to modern affluence can be shown in a simple but stunning graph,” Steven writes. “The story of the growth of prosperity in human history is close to: nothing . . . nothing . . . nothing . . . (repeat for a few thousand years) . . . boom!
“A millennium after the year 1 C.E., the world was barely richer than it was at the time of Jesus,” he observes. Then, “Starting in the 19th century, the increments turned into leaps and bounds.”
What happened starting around 1800? The Industrial Revolution. At which point, capitalism kicked in.
What was the greatest innovation of the Industrial Revolution? Innovation itself.
“Between 1820 and 1900, the world’s income tripled. It tripled again in a bit more than fifty years. It took only twenty-five years for it to triple again, and another thirty-three years to triple yet another time.”
3: The political debate today centers on how wealth should be distributed. Which is natural. But we don’t want to miss the bigger point. Because there is not a finite and determined amount of wealth to divide up. “Economists speak of a ‘lump fallacy,'” Steven writes, “in which a finite amount of wealth has existed since the beginning of of time, like a lode of gold.”
The historical data is clear: The pie is growing. And growing. With entrepreneurship and innovation, we continue to have the opportunity to create more wealth, which raises the overall standard of living.
Reflection: What is more shocking? The pervasiveness of poverty that existed for most of human history or the stunning increase in prosperity over the past 200 years?
Action: Share this data with my family and friends! These are not the worst of times. Far from it.