For any rational person, it ought to be abundantly clear why any given society will never completely eliminate the presence of poverty among its citizens. The reasons why this is shall not concern us here, for they are too numerous and too obvious to warrant a real consideration. Instead, our project is to engage in counterfactual conditional theorizing with the “what if” that begins the question of “what if poverty were eliminated”. Counterfactuals ask what would be the case if the antecedent (or “if-part”) of the if-then statement were indeed true (and so often when it clearly could never be true). Counterfactuals allow us to enter a universe of possibility: one where we cannot be in the normal state of affairs but only in a kind of imaginary state of examination. Having said this, it should be clear that counterfactual analysis has little to do with reality or practical application.
The conclusions reached here about what if can say nothing to inform public policy that deals with the here and now. In fact, precisely because the antecedent in this case cannot be true (as was said previously), it might be the case that these considerations cannot have any practical use beyond the useful practice of logical conjecture.
What if poverty were eliminated? Such a question presupposes that we know what poverty is, beyond the concepts that we use in day-to-day life. However, what we find with these common concepts is that they are often faulty and not representative of the actual state of affairs. For instance, while we might think of justice as fairness, this might mean that justice is the property of abiding by rules. The rules themselves could in fact be unjust themselves. The concept of poverty, like justice, bears hidden connotations that must be sheared off before continuing. There are actually two components of the concept of poverty, one of which has to do with economics and the other which has to do with personal properties. These two facets of poverty readily interact with one another and often reinforce one another. The elimination of one kind of poverty, contrary to popular belief, will not lead automatically or ensure the elimination of the other, which perpetuates the problem and has the potential to move us into committing evil acts.
The first facet of poverty is that of virtue. While the word “virtue” might sound overly philosophical, it is merely a matter of personal excellence. A virtue is a personality trait that serves as a means to a greater end. For instance, the virtue of a businessman is his ability to articulate his thoughts clearly and concisely, which is a means to the end of making a profit for himself and his investors. Virtues for human beings, in general, are more difficult to discover, but that need not concern us here. We need only think of those personal character traits that are necessary to success in our society, or those that lead to a non-poverty circumstance for the individual. In a capitalist society, we might value the virtues of prudence, sensibility, persistence, and so on. Any person with a deficit in these virtues, or characteristics, will ultimately fail to acquire the end to which they are a means. In a capitalist society, again, the end is personal success measured in terms of resource, which is something else that can be deficient in a person’s life.
The second facet of poverty, derived from the first, is that of resource. From the previous discussion, we found that in a capitalistic society, virtues are a means of achieving an end. If we are deficient in these virtues, we will be deficient in the goal that they help us follow through upon. A definition of a poverty of resource corresponds to the definition that many in our society ascribe to the concept of poverty in general: the state of having little or no money and few or no material possessions. Few acknowledge the fact that wealth and material possessions do not come from thin air: they are produced for the use and consumption by individuals. Ultimately, lacking the means to achieve these ends, by lacking either an education or a sufficiently high mental capacity, will create an inability to acquire these goods. Not acknowledging this fact leads ultimately to a mischaracterization of poverty and an inability to understand how complicated it really is.
The aforementioned common misperception of poverty is that all poverty is poverty of resource and not a poverty of virtue. An easy example of a poverty of virtue might be a person’s lack of temperance, perhaps with respect to alcohol consumption. A lack of temperance might drive one to excessive alcohol drinking and alcoholism, which has effects on all other areas of his or her life. Another virtue that can be a deficit is that of trustworthiness. A person might lack this virtue and then be incapable of holding down a job, because the employer cannot trust him or her to perform that activity effectively. Obviously, privation in particular characteristic traits will lead inevitably to a privation in monetary resources. This is especially true if some particular characteristic might be considered a “virtue” in the context of our modern society. A privation in resource might likewise cause a person to lack a trait like trustworthiness. For instance, often employers are hesitant to give jobs to desperately poor people, fearing that they are not as trustworthy with company resources. Thus, in many ways, these facets of poverty are mutually reinforcing and held in parallel causation. Usually, individuals traditionally conceived of as “in poverty” are so because they are deficit in one kind of poverty, which eventually causes the other kind of poverty to manifest itself.
Thus, it is a fallacy to assume by “poverty” that we only mean “poverty” in the economic sense. There is a natural distribution of wealth in all societies. This distribution lies along the bell curve, or normal distribution in which very few have either too much or too little, and the mean of the population lies somewhere in the middle. Wealth appears, in our modern welfare state, and then is spent either by those who acquire it or those who received it from taxes (namely, the government). Taking away one segment of the bell curve implies the taking away of its correlate opposite on the other side of the spectrum. The government can choose to lower prices of goods through price ceilings, which makes wealth useless. Or it can institute price floors and make the disadvantaged pay too much for some good. The elimination of poverty (or the lower end of the spectrum) means the elimination of wealth (or the higher end of the spectrum), and places all segments of society somewhere in the center.
The economic effects of eliminating poverty would, of course, be widespread. Entire industries dependent either upon the labor or consumption by individuals of lower-income brackets would shrivel up and die, along with those who prosper from them. Police, social workers, mental health facilities, a number of lawyers, prison system workers, and so on would be rendered vestigial in the marketplace. Rich or poor, these now useless laborers would be left to suffer from the abolition of poverty by whatever means. Following the cycle, these individuals would also have to be prevented from falling into poverty as a result. Given the potential “ripple effect” of ending poverty, and its economic consequences, it is wrong to suppose that “ending poverty” is a noble goal, when it actually has the potential to create a vast amount of suffering.
Poverty of resource occurs because of a poverty of virtue, but a poverty of virtue also results from a poverty of resource. It is not sufficient to say that, in all cases, one happens as a result of the other. The left-liberal might argue that people lack virtue because they lack the resources to achieve it, such as when someone cannot afford an education. The right-conservative might argue that people lack resources because they lack something more intangible: the right characteristics such as intelligence or willpower to achieve these things. Nevertheless, they are in all way interconnected and independent factors working to produce the same result. Thus, if poverty were somehow eliminated, there would have to be something to address both facets simultaneously to maintain this poverty-less (or, say, “gray” to mean neither black nor white) society. For poverty of resources, it is hard to see anything but a government maintaining that responsibility of allocating resources equally among the citizens of the state. This would prevent the unbalanced allocation that occurs under laissez-faire capitalism. It is unclear how a poverty of virtue would be prevented, and by what force.
The force behind ending poverty of resource, obviously, would be a command economy. Resources would have to be produced and allocated at the control of central planners to ensure the equality of portioning. In the absence of such a command-style situation, the aforementioned “natural order” of the free market would resume and poverty would arise again. Although a state in which goods are distributed evenly achieves the elimination of poverty of resource (the modern concept of poverty), it does nothing for poverty of virtue. In the gray society, not only must it be without a deficit of resources but without a deficit of virtue, unless we allow the state to be unjust: a goal that seems to contradict the purpose of the state in the first place. If we simply handle poverty of resource, without taking care of the poverty of virtue, we encounter a situation much like previous attempts at communism and socialism, which have categorically failed. They have failed because people lack the virtues necessary to continue their real existence.
In the case where the government simply redistributes goods indiscriminately, we find ourselves in a situation of unjust extortion of property and the sacrifice of everyone for everyone. These economic measures must be accompanied by some measure of eliminating poverty of virtue, which include but are not limited to real education and real freedom. Taken in conjunction, this represents the end of all poverty. Unfortunately, the conjunction is impossible, insofar as the elimination of poverty of virtue is only possible when people have the incentive to be virtuous. People have to want to be excellent human beings for a reason. Without the freedoms taken away by the command economy, individuals lack reason to achieve happiness. Freedom and virtue, it turns out, are necessary correlates and cannot be separated by any reasonable measure.
The concept of poverty is not as simple as it seems: it encompasses both virtue (the means) and the resource (the end). If a person is deficient in either, it will lead inevitably to a deficiency in the other. Thus, if the condition of poverty were to be removed from any society, to maintain this condition that society would have to institute measures to ensure their neither part of the conjunction becomes false. In order for people to have the resources to live, they must have the means of acquiring it. And in order for people to have the means to acquire it, they must also have the resources to do so. Eliminating one kind of poverty from this equation does not guarantee that the other kind will be, in turn, also eliminated. Although counterfactual analysis is often inapplicable to real life, what we can take away from this study is that poverty is not limited to the superficialities of one’s resources: it also has to do with things deeper than mere belongings. It has to do with who we are as human beings.