The more things change…

Upon reading that advocates were–surprise surprise–lamenting that our safety net wasn’t big enough, a paragraph from the 19th century Irish writer/storyteller William Carleton came to mind. The story is the humorous tale, “Phil Purcell, the Pig-driver” and, as Carleton tells it, the events occurred in a time “unaccompanied by the improvements of poverty, sickness, and famine.” With tongue planted firmly in cheek, Carleton continues his ironic portrayal of poverty and a few other “improvements” of his day:

Political economy had not then taught the people how to be poor upon the most scientific principles; free trade had not shown the nation the most approved plan of reducing itself to the lowest possible state of distress; nor liberalism enabled the working classes to scoff at religion, and wisely to stop at the very line that lies between outrage and rebellion.
Many errors and inconveniences, now happily exploded, were then in existence. The people, it is true, were somewhat attached to their landlords, but still they were burdened with the unnecessary appendages of good coats and stout shoes; were tolerably industrious, and had the mortification of being able to pay their rents, and feed in comfort. They were not, as they are now, free from new coats and old prejudices, nor improved by the intellectual march of politics and poverty.
When either a man or a nation starves, it is a luxury to starve in an enlightened manner; and nothing is more consolatory to a person acquainted with public rights and constitutional privileges, than to understand those liberal principles upon which he fasts and goes naked.

I’m not sure if we can take solace or be distressed from the fact that something written about 250 years ago seems so similar to the situation we’re in today. I guess it’s one of those incontrovertible characteristics of human nature: there will always be poor people and there will always be those who know better than the rest of us how to “help” them.

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Dan
Dan
11 years ago

A concept with which reputable economists are very familiar is the tendency of human beings to adjust their behavior and emotions very quickly to new environments and new standards of living. Upon experiencing good fortune and amelioration of negative condtions, there is a brief “blip” of utility and appreciation, following which the individual simply adjusts their expecations and there becomes a new norm. This is why 20-30 years ago we were astounded at being able to do something as simple as sending an e-mail or visiting a website, and now we throw a temper tantrum whenever our high-speed cable internet streaming or G4 telephone service goes down for 5 minutes. We have adjusted our standards and expectations. So it is with poor individuals and social safety net spending. $100 extra per week is a godsend to the struggling family for a short period of time. The family then adapts to the new standard of living, adjusts their priorities, spending habits, and expectations, and it becomes unimaginable to live on anything less. The same phenomenon occurs with many conservatives and defense spending. Increase defense spending by $100 billion one year and the next year it becomes unimaginable to “put ourselves at risk” by spending a few billion less. Adaptation to environment was an invaluable skill in our evolutionary development. Now that we have more control over our enviroment and over other people through our clumsy top-down governmental controls, not so much.

Patrick
Patrick
11 years ago

” I guess it’s one of those incontrovertible characteristics of human nature: there will always be poor people ”
Someone else noticed that about 2,000 years ago:
“Mark 14:7-9 (King James Version)
For ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good: but me ye have not always.”

Sammy in Arizona
Sammy in Arizona
11 years ago

If there really is a God, don’t you think he would at bare minimum cover the entire planet with just a minimum of wealth and not just select swaths of land?
Why does God hate poor people ??
i’m just sayin’

James Kabala
James Kabala
11 years ago

I don’t have time to read the entire story, but the excerpt quoted and the date of the story lead me to believe that “liberal” means what we now call “classical liberal” and the author is actually advocating paternalistic landlords as preferable to new-fangled free trade and laissez-faire. Not saying I agree with the author, but I think you misinterpreted his meaning.

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