Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist is an important book, which describes the effect on humanity of the burning of fossil fuels. Largely its effect is benign and constructive. It has largely abolished the grinding poverty of all ages before Europe in the 19th century.
Every one of us has more servants at our disposal than Le Roi Soleil, Louis XIV, who had some 481, I seem to recall from Ridley’s book. The point of burning fossil fuels is to increase the energy available to each man, woman and child on the planet, both personally in what one can consume individually but more importantly, systemically in what society can use, such as streetlights, elevators, subways, heating and air conditioning of public spaces.
I would like to dwell for a moment however on the downside of the life of ease brought to us courtesy of fossil fuel consumption. I am not for a second proposing that a more virtuous existence can be found – on a broad social basis – by using less energy. Personal abstention may well by fine, such as living by a lake in Finland or Canada at a low level of energy consumption, and some tribes, such as Amish and Hutterites, manage with a much more selective uptake of technology. For me, and for billions of my fellow humans, living with less energy when you need it constitutes poverty. We all desire to escape from it, and the enlightened wish to rescue their fellow humans from the disease, ignorance, brutality, and hopelessness that seem to be the essence of poverty.
If Theodore Dalrymple is right in his many castigations of the culture of poverty in the British idle classes, there is something to be said for a more stringent existence. His argument is that the former white working class of England and Scotland has been ruined by technological change leading to unemployment, and then, by a process of subsidization of this idleness, made available by general modern levels of taxation, and the prosperity on which taxation depends, the welfare state is producing people who do not believe in anything, do not toilet train their infants, do not believe in education, deliberately make bad choices in their sexual partners and produce more welfare children by several absent layabout fathers, avoid marriage, do not pick up the garbage they leave in their front yards, do not cook and do not know how to cook, and, in short, are engaged in terminal cultural decline, abetted by a middle class industry of social minders whose jobs would disappear if the lazy fuck-heads would get religion, sober up, put on a white shirt, and look for a job.
In essence, Dalrymple’s critique of poverty in the United Kingdom is that it is a spiritual and intellectual impoverishment brought about by modern wealth, that can afford to keep 15% of the nation idle and dissipated, and do nothing about it. By doing nothing I mean: do not attack it directly with spiritual and rigorous measures, by shaming, by forced work, by authoritarian interventions, by evangelical Christianity.
Two works by authors of entirely different dispositions have also addressed this problem. One is the socialist historian Richard Tawney, whose The Agrarian Problem in the 16th Century observed that, in Elizabethan England, some 20% of the population were beggars, wandering the roads and committing crimes, and threatening the social order. Tawney decried the Protestant Reformation and the effects of enclosures – denying the poor access to common land on which to graze their animals or plant a crop – as the basis of the crisis. Monasteries and Catholic orders had done what they could to alleviate the condition of the poor. The same layabouts as populate the lowest classes today were not contained at home with television and alcohol in the sixteenth century. With the abolition of the alms-giving institutions by the Reformation, the underclass was set loose to wander. The second historian who has addressed the issue of what England did with its illiterate layabouts – albeit in a different time – was Gertrude Himmelfarb, an American, whose book The Demoralization of Society and others has argued that the “Victorians” have been unjustly maligned for their efforts to rescue the lowest classes of England by a program of virtue.
… the Victorian virtues – prudence, temperance, industriousness, decency, responsibility – were thoroughly pedestrian. “They depended on no special breeding, talent, sensibility, or even money. They were common, everyday virtues, within the capacity of ordinary people. They were the virtues of citizens, not of heroes or saints – and of citizens of democratic countries, not aristocratic ones.” Himmelfarb has argued “for the reintroduction of traditional values (she prefers the term ‘virtues’), such as shame, responsibility, chastity, and self-reliance, into American political life and policy-making”
So does Dalrymple.
Once again I find myself starting out by thinking one thing and realizing that it is an error. Maybe, I thought, the problem of a layabout lowest class could be fixed in an environment where there was less available energy, where obesity was a disease of the idle rich rather than the idle poor. Maybe, I thought, when people actually have to work to eat, the habits of virtue could be instilled. Yet a few minutes of thinking remind me that poverty is not a matter of lack of wealth – if it were it could be and has been fixed. Poverty is a spiritual condition. When everyone has a shelter, a television set, heating, and the possibility of education, the fact remains that a significant proportion of the population dwell in darkness, and seem to prefer to live that way. They are subsidized to remain that way. Removing the subsidies would put them on the streets, like the sturdy beggars of Elizabethan and later epochs of English history were, without solving the problem.
If I may borrow freely from the Wikipedia article on Theodore Dalrymple, the pen name of Anthony Daniels,the problems look like this:
- The cause of much contemporary misery in Western countries – criminality, domestic violence, drug addiction, aggressive youths, hooliganism, broken families – is the nihilistic, decadent and/or self-destructive behaviour of people who do not know how to live. Both the smoothing over of this behaviour, and the medicalisation of the problems that emerge as a corollary of this behaviour, are forms of indifference. Someone has to tell those people, patiently and with understanding for the particulars of the case, that they have to live differently.
- Poverty does not explain aggressive, criminal and self-destructive behaviour. In an African slum you will find among the very poor, living in dreadful circumstances, dignity and decency in abundance, which are painfully lacking in an average English suburb, although its inhabitants are much wealthier.
- An attitude characterised by gratefulness and having obligations towards others has been replaced – with awful consequences – by an awareness of “rights” and a sense of entitlement, without responsibilities. This leads to resentment as the rights become violated by parents, authorities, bureaucracies and others in general.
- One of the things that makes Islam attractive to young westernised Muslim men is the opportunity it gives them to dominate women.
- Technocratic or bureaucratic solutions to the problems of mankind produce disasters in cases where the nature of man is the root cause of those problems.
- It is a myth, when going “cold turkey” from an opiate such as heroin, that the withdrawal symptoms are virtually unbearable; they are in fact hardly worse than flu.
- Criminality is much more often the cause of drug addiction than its consequence.
- Sentimentality, which is becoming entrenched in British society, is “the progenitor, the godparent, the midwife of brutality”.
- High culture and refined aesthetic tastes are worth defending, and despite the protestations of non-judgmentalists who say all expression is equal, they are superior to popular culture.
- The ideology of the Welfare State is used to diminish personal responsibility. Erosion of personal responsibility makes people dependent on institutions and favours the existence of a threatening and vulnerable underclass.
- Moral relativism can easily be a trick of an egotistical mind to silence the voice of conscience.
- Multiculturalism and cultural relativism are at odds with common sense.
- The decline of civilised behaviour – self-restraint, modesty, zeal, humility, irony, detachment – ruins social and personal life.
- The root cause of our contemporary cultural poverty is intellectual dishonesty. First, the intellectuals (more specifically, left-wing ones) have destroyed the foundation of culture, and second, they refuse to acknowledge it by resorting to the caves of political correctness.
- Beyond and above all other nations in the world, Britain is the place where all the evils summarised above are most clearly manifest.
Even with 481 servants per person, as measured in terms of kilowatts of disposable energy, poverty is not being cured. Trying to fix poverty by wealth transfers alone is yet another case of what I call trying to lift the gross national product with a set of tongs. Some seeds fall on stony ground, as we are reminded by Jesus in another context.