The most important lesson we can learn from recent history is that putting equality at the top of the agenda won't eliminate poverty, it might make it more widespreadby Roger Scruton / November 26, 2013 / Leave a comment
©Photofusion/UIG via Getty
Almost any thinking citizen, asked if we should seek to end poverty in our country, would answer yes. What political goal could be more clearly desirable? And yet, when asked to define what poverty consists in, or why, on some given definition, poverty is bad, many people find themselves stumped for an answer. The word conjures images of Victor Hugo’s Paris or Charles Dickens’s London, in which poverty was a condition just this side of the grave. The 19th-century poor were fending off death with their last resources—by begging, crime, prostitution and the sale of their children. But people described as poor today are usually in no such straits—certainly not in the United Kingdom. Of course, there are people elsewhere who are less fortunate than the poorest Briton; but for poverty to be a serious matter of domestic policy it must be a condition that can be identified here, in the United Kingdom. And, looking at the condition of the poorest among us, we find little to compare with the absolute lack of resources that inspired the indignation of Hugo, Dickens, Mayhew, Marx, Dostoevsky or Proudhon in the 19th century.
This does not mean that no-one in Britain today is poor. For the standards against which poverty is measured depend upon the norms to which we aspire. Faced with the question, how many knights does a retired sovereign need, King Lear responded: “O reason not the need! Our basest beggars/ Are in the poorest things superfluous,” thus setting out on the long, hard path by which he learned what real poverty is. How poor we are depends on how poor we feel; and while we could have been comfortable in Victorian England despite lacking a car, a properly equipped kitchen, a telephone and a source of information, such as a computer, it is unlikely that we could dispense with those resources today. What we need depends on the life that surrounds us. That life has been created by others, and by the powers, assets and luxuries that they take for granted.