CAPITOL LETTERS (Ep. 7): The Noble (and Nobel-Winning) Losing Fight Against Poverty We are still rich in poor judgments
In the essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism, Oscar Wilde puts forth a mindboggling argument for socialism. The poet thereby finds poor people uncomely, so he’d want someone (or something) to redeem them from the desolation of this “picture”. The Wildean argument for socialism turns explicitly aesthetic in its essence: the artist within him wishes for a social order where the problem of aesthetic deficiency is central(ized). If the “aesthetically challenged” were eradicated and the “aesthetically gifted” were privileged, everything would be great. And there was no shortage of intellectuals who chose the comfort of complicity with the “cultural militia”. Nevertheless, both a priori and a posteriori, socialism, egalitarianism or, in other words, hyper-statism is a triple monstrosity: economically, ethically and, yes, aesthetically too. To wit: the social realism in “art”, the depersonalizing ethics of “the commune” and “the economics of penury” – the three heads of a hideous hydra.
Poverty has colonized humanity while begging for humaneness, and it has been so since the dawn of time. Mourned and bemoaned in absolute terms (e.g. “I’ve got nothing!”, “I’m knee-deep in sickness and misery!”, “I’m starving!”) as well as relative terms (e.g. “I’ve got nothing, unlike my neighbor who is filthy rich and won’t spare me a penny!”), poverty preoccupies those who experience it as well as those who “cohabitate” with the former, albeit not necessarily in close proximity. A poor man can be helped in two broad ways: by offering him a handout for his misery and by offering him a hand out of his misery. The difference between giving a gift carved out of an existing surplus and aiding someone so that they may sustain themselves can be seen in the kinds of incentives and calculations they generate in a community. The problem then becomes infinitely more socially delicate when “fighting poverty” is acquired/socialized by the government. Creating a right of the poor over the rich who are blameless for the former’s poverty demolishes the very concept that it hypocritically claims: social solidarity.
The problem of poverty is simultaneously individual, communal, national and global, and the resolution it entails divides its toolkit into voluntary and non-voluntary (i.e., coercive) types of measures. In this picture, the State runs the risk of displaying gaucheness alongside the leftism that comes rather naturally to it, thus undermining its chance at sustainable solutions (a concept it holds quite dear these days). Forced transfers of resources (i.e., by fiscal means) from the haves to the have-nots (or for the latter’s social inclusion) risk to alter mores on every mile of the channel, from the “headwaters” (i.e., a lack of interest for private efforts) all the way to the “mouth” (i.e., the working class is out of work), but particularly along the course, where its mangroves and shallows are beset by raptor-fish seeking to extract a benefit. Legal policies to ensure “minimum” and “decent” wages cannot serve as anything more than cynical social tranquilizers. Similarly, multiple financial and monetary maneuvers only cause boom-bust spasms with the ensuing social withdrawal.
Pauperization and social polarization are topics perpetually on the agenda of the “civilized world”, namely the North and the West who find them beyond their frontiers (that is in the South) but also within their own borders (that is in the slums). There was even a Nobel Prize awarded in 2019 for “an experimental approach to alleviating global poverty”. Should we have an anti-poverty science, but without an adequate supply of (will)power?! Caught between so many crises, the worlds capitals and capital seem to be willing (rhetorically, at least) to fight extreme poverty and flagrant inequality. Could it be the native empathy for one’s neighbor, equal in looks and manner, or is it the instinctual fear for the wrath of the hungry and thirsty ones? Is it religious faith in a transcendentally well rewarded act of kindness or the secular conviction that the poverty of a potential clientele is a source of financial losses? Is it a definitive revelation or a dialectical revolution – and if it’s a revolution, then what does it seek to enforce: bonding (reciprocity and responsibility) or bondage (with chains cuffing minds, not only hands)?
Discussing poverty in rich and powerful countries such as the United States of America seems preposterous at least compared to underdeveloped world, where the phenomenon is “at home”. Yet poverty by contrast (a species of inequality) is more staring and startling. Much as its politicization. The official poverty rate – as reported by the US Census Bureau – in 2020 was 11.4 percent, up almost 1.0 pp as against 2019. This translates into 37.2 million people in poverty, approximately 3.3 million more than in 2019. With the eternal racial biases between Whites and Asians, sensibly better off than Hispanics and Blacks (nota bene: here the “colors” are spelled out exactly as in the official report). As for the political refrains, the Republicans put richness and poverty on the own merits/efforts of the people, while the Democrats attribute them mostly to junctures and privileges. What about the cures? The “Reps” invest in open opportunities and fiscal lessening, in hope of spillover effects; the “Dems” con redistributive plots, even when they (unintendedly?) favor the rich at the expense of the middle-class…
P.S. Enjoy reading two fresh pieces of regulatory literature patronized by President Biden: The Inflation Reduction Act and Student Loan Debt Relief Plan. Try a both-hands reflection…
(August 15, 2022 – Washington, D.C.)
Photo source: author’s snapshot at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
CAPITOL LETTERS is a series of articles occasioned by the author’s presence in Washington, D.C. as Romanian Cultural Institute Fellow, studying industrial revolutions’ imprint on the cultural sector.
The opinions hereby expressed by the author remain his exclusive responsibility and do not engage, in any manner or measure, the organizations to which he is affiliated or with which he collaborates.