May 19, 2013
Righteous indignation doesn’t help
Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio seems to be convinced that poverty would go away if people got indignant, really indignant, about it. In his eyes, as in those of most others, poverty is caused by the selfishness of a greedy minority whose heartless behaviour he berated in the homily he delivered to mark the feast day of the mediaeval saint who, somewhere up there, does his best to help job-seekers and — according to the hagiographers — disappointed gamblers. Unfortunately, matters are a bit more complicated than the good archbishop, along with millions of progressives, old-fashioned conservatives of a charitable disposition and others would dearly like to believe.
To begin with, they have got things the wrong way round. They take the existence of plenty of material goods and useful services for granted, as though they had been at hand since time began, so the main problem is making sure everyone gets his or her fair share. That settled, they treat poverty as a monstrous scandal, an aberration whose perpetrators should be punished for their cruelty. But it so happens that economic prosperity is anything but natural. It is artificial, the result of a large number of factors, many of which are related not to morality but to culture in the anthropological sense of that much used word.
The North American presidential candidate Mitt Romney greatly annoyed Palestinians by saying they — the common folk, that is, not their multimillionaire leaders — were relatively poor, despite the generous handouts their community received from the US and the European Union, and the Israelis rich, because the latter’s culture was far more productive. Romney was right, of course, though that did not save him from being branded a “racist” by the Palestinian bosses and their sympathizers who were more than happy to accuse him of committing yet another “gaffe” on his electoral foray abroad.
While the Israelis, along with East Asians and some Europeans and North Americans, feel fully at home in the modern capitalistic world and make it their business to acquire the skills and attitudes that are needed to thrive in it, many others prefer a rather different approach. They — or at least the often self-appointed individuals who say they speak in their name — proclaim themselves victims of social injustice, whether locally or internationally, and demand to be properly compensated for their misfortune by those who to their mind are responsible for depriving them of their birthright.
These days, “blaming the victim” for his or her fate or, worse still, preaching the virtues of self-reliance are widely frowned on. It would seem that almost everywhere the elites, which include a considerable number of kindly billionaires, are determined to wage war against poverty on the moral front. Their efforts may make them feel good about themselves, but they do not seem to be having the desired effect. Although most countries are now far richer than they ever were before and are governed by individuals who desperately want to be regarded as “socially conscious,” the proportion of people in them who can barely make ends meet appears to have grown in the last few years. In part this is a statistical quirk because, in the US, Europe and Japan, most of those considered poor are comfortably off by the standards prevailing in Latin America, Africa, and huge parts of Asia, but it also shows that there is a limit to what the charitable can hope to achieve.
In any event, there can be no doubt that the most strikingly successful results chalked up in the “war against want” have come in societies in which, for cultural reasons, people tend to take an unsentimental view of success or failure. The Chinese make no bones when it comes to “blaming the victim” for his or her plight. That stern way of looking at things used to be common in the US, Japan and northern Europe, but in recent years the conventional wisdom has changed. This has certainly been the case in Argentina, where pro-government politicians and their supporters still attribute persistent poverty to Carlos Menem’s “neoliberal” heresies and antigovernment ones insinuate it is all due to Kirchnerite corruption and deride its notorious willingness to fiddle the official statistics. About the only thing they agree upon is that it all was the fault of those politicians they dislike most, that if they were more honest or showed more solidarity, poverty would soon melt away.
Would it? There is no reason to think so. Though corruption, administrative inefficiency, bureaucratic red-tape and hostility to private enterprise certainly contribute to keeping people down, even if they were removed it would take a cultural revolution not “to lift” people out of poverty but to provide them with an escape route. Using it would not be easy for them, but while in China even the destitute are willing to make enormous sacrifices to ensure that at least their sons and daughters take full advantage of the education opportunities that are available or, if they are not, do their level best to make some, their Argentine counterparts show little interest in what was once called self-improvement. Indeed, in some progressives’ view, urging them to do would merely give the men and women in charge of the country’s education system an excuse to deny the poor what is supposed to be an inalienable right. It would also mean that the result of the battle against poverty would depend on the poor themselves, not on those who aspire to be their benefactors.