Politics & Policy

Poor Thinking

The poverty of progressivism.

People in the media, in academia, and among the intelligentsia in general who are obsessed with “disparities” in income and wealth usually show not the slightest interest in how that income and wealth were produced in the first place.

They are hot to redistribute the existing income and wealth but seem wholly unaware that how you do that today can affect how much income and wealth will be produced tomorrow. Any number of schemes for redistributing wealth have ended up redistributing poverty in a number of countries.

“Progressives” in the media and among academics and intellectuals claim to be interested in ending poverty but the production of more output is the only way to end poverty for millions of people.

It not only can be done, it has already been done in many countries, for all countries were once very poor by today’s standards. But most self-styled “progressives” show virtually zero interest in economic history or in economics in general.

Even in the United States, most people did not have a telephone or a refrigerator as late as 1930. Today, most Americans living below the official poverty level have not only these things but also color television, air-conditioning, a microwave oven, and a motor vehicle.

How did this happen? The progressive intelligentsia show no interest in that question.

Even such historically poverty-stricken countries as India and China, repeatedly struck by massive famines, have within the past two decades adopted changed economic policies that have raised vast numbers of people out of desperate poverty.

An estimated 20 million people in India rose out of destitution in just one decade and more than a million Chinese per month have risen out of poverty. But have you heard any progressive intellectuals explaining how such a dramatic change for the better came about?

Progressives are in the business of complaining and denouncing — as a prelude to seeking sweeping powers to control other people’s lives, in the name of curing the ills of society.

The last thing they want is to discover and discuss how millions of people rose out of poverty by entirely different methods, often by freeing economies from the control of people with sweeping power over other people’s lives.

Poverty and economic disparities are the raw materials from which the political left manufactures a sense of moral superiority, self-importance and political power.

Against that background, it is understandable how they strive to keep poverty alive as an issue, even as they claim to want to end poverty, by playing lady bountiful to the poor.

Even as they define deviancy downward, many of the progressive intelligentsia define poverty upward, so that people with amenities that even the middle class could only strive for, two generations ago, are still called “the poor” or the “have-nots.”

Except for people who can’t work or won’t work, there is very little real poverty in the United States today, except among people who come from poverty-stricken countries and bring their poverty with them.

Talk about “the working poor” still resonates in politics, but most of the people in the bottom 20 percent of American households are not working full-time and year-round. There are more heads of household who work year-round and full-time among the top 5 percent of American heads of households than among the bottom 20 percent.

The Left has striven mightily to make working no longer necessary for having a claim to a share of what others have produced — whether a share of “the nation’s” wealth or “the world’s” wealth.

They have also striven mightily to inflate the number of people who look poor by counting young people with entry-level jobs, who are passing through lower income brackets at the beginning of their careers, among “the poor,” even though most of these young people have incomes above the national average when they are older.

The real obsession of the Left is in gaining power or, at the very least, engaging in moral exhibitionism.


Thomas SowellThomas Sowell is an American economist, social theorist, political philosopher, and author, whose books include Basic Economics. He is currently senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.


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