Hazlitt on poverty


After fruitless years in social work, it was with relief I read Henry Hazlitt’s THE CONQUEST OF POVERTY.Published in ‘73, his insights are as pertinent as ever. They explode the following myths:

  1. The amount of wealth is limited. (False, there is a much as people want to create.)
  2. The poor are trapped.(False).
  3. The rich get richer, the poor, poorer. (False, both progress proportionately.)
  4. The rich cause poverty. (False).
  5. The owners of a business get most of its income. (False, most goes for workers’ wages.)
  6. Capitalism helps the rich the most. (False, it helps the masses the most.)
  7. Social programs* help the poor. (False, they hurt the poor and society.)

Hazlitt says to gain perspective we should be aware that:

  1. There had always been mass poverty until the mid-18th century, when it was eliminated in the advanced countries by capitalism.
  2. Individual poverty cannot be elimina­ted as some people prefer to live near destitution.
  3. Government handouts easily get out of control. This happened in ancient Rome; and it happened in 19th century England to such a degree, laws were passed to keep benefits beneath the lowest wage so the poor would every reason to look for work.

Hazlitt says in order in order for social programs (and foreign aid) to be effective:

  1. They have to be keyed to promoting work, saving, and skills, which is best done through capitalism.
  2. Capitalism depends on the enterprise of the few and the labor of many.
  3. The large salaries of the few are irrelevant when considering the many jobs and valuable products they create.
  4. Trying to redistribute the wealth of those few is pointless and suicidal.

He says we have been led astray by social workers who: Talk as if anti-poverty is a recent effort. Never define poverty.Pity the pauper, but not the worker nor the taxpayer. Insist on seeing the poor as ‘exploited victims of maldistributions of wealth and heartless laissez faire’.Haven’t faced the dis­astrous results of social programs.Want no loss of dignity for a person when he gets on welfare, but a gain when he gets off. Coddle the poor despite their agency’s policies to the contrary.Work to make everyone equal by leveling down, never summoning up. Preen themselves on compas­sion. Systematically ignore the reasons for poverty.Don’t learn from the past. Don’t distin­guish between poverty caused by misfortune and that caused by folly.

After many jobs in social work, I couldn’t agree more. Why haven’t we heard more of such views? Let’s take a break from liberal guilt and change the air.