The Blessing of Poverty

Two poor young men, Ralph and Bobby, each decide on very different courses. Ralph loves the party life; he drops out of high school, gets a menial job, goes out to bars, chats up women and generally has a great time. Bobby also takes a menial job, but takes night courses for years in order to get his degree. Then, he takes business and administrative courses. Finally, he gets a good job and begins to make a lot of money. Ralph, on the other hand, remains stuck at a lower middle class income.

An interesting question is: who is the wiser man? Who has made the best decisions? The standard answer is that Ralph is a short-sighted fool, while Bobby is hard-working and sensible. But why? Why is going to night school better than going to a bar? Sure, Bobby makes more money when he’s older, but Ralph has more fun when he’s younger. It is a foolish exercise to look at all the benefits of one decision and compare them with all the drawbacks of another decision. You can buy a house or rent an apartment; if you buy a house, you’re building up equity – but if you’re renting, you have all this additional money, which is also equity. Who is to say which is better? It’s a purely personal decision, like preferring blue over yellow. It’s not an objectively-quantifiable value. Refraining from murder, for instance, is always moral, no matter what the circumstances. Going to a bar rather than going to a library is not a moral choice, but rather a subjective preference, akin to aesthetics. If a man has only three months to live, we do not consider him a fool for failing to start taking night courses – in fact, we would wonder at his sanity if he started doing so. If I am rather dim, but physically strong, then manual labour is probably my best course, and night school would be a waste of both my time and the teacher’s time. Thus the taking of night courses is a subjective value, relative to a near-infinite number of other circumstances.

Thus life decisions like ‘education versus enjoyment’ cannot be subjected to objective determinations of value. They are not even subject to economic analyses, since a man who goes to university is giving up hundreds of thousands of dollars in opportunity costs, while the man who takes a job out of high school makes a fortune in comparison – especially if he invests the difference.

There is, however, one critical aspect which truly endangers the value of Bobby’s decisions. Let’s say that, after twenty years of hard work, Bobby ends up making 100k a year, while amiable party-guy Ralph is stuck at 35k a year. The fundamental problem is that Bobby’s gains are transferable, while Ralph’s gains are not. When Bobby was studying, and Ralph was out having fun, Ralph’s fun couldn’t be transferred to Bobby. However, now that Bobby is making a lot more money, his extra money can be transferred to Ralph. This disparity is central to the problem of State violence and corruption.

When Ralph looks at Bobby’s salary, he may feel hard done by because he makes so little in comparison. He suddenly forgets all the times he was out having fun while Bobby was sitting at home studying – for the simple reason that all of Ralph’s gains were in the past, while all of Bobby’s gains are in the present and the future. Ralph’s fun is beyond reclamation or redistribution, while Bobby’s money can now be taken from him in the present and given to Ralph.

It is this very capacity for redistribution which creates such imbalances in the political process, and causes the State to ultimately self-destruct. The degree of sympathy we have for those who make less money is because we so often remain blind to the value of having less money. Less money is often the result of less education, and since education isn’t always fun, all it means is that the poorer person has simply bought more fun by accepting a lower income. We don’t have a problem with people paying for fun by going to Disney World, do we? So how can we think less of a man for preferring fun to work? A woman may choose to be a poor philosopher because she prefers wisdom to money – all that means is that she has bought wisdom by deferring income. What is the problem with that? Is it objectively better to make money unwisely?

The problem is, of course, that those whose gains were in the past tend to focus only on what is currently lost, not what was previously gained. The purpose of life is to choose whatever moral course is most satisfying to us. Ralph may look at Bobby’s income and wish that he had himself worked harder when he was younger, but so what? Bobby might as easily look at Ralph’s life and wish he had had more fun when he was younger. Both perspectives are largely academic, however, because we know that Bobby has always done exactly what he wanted – and so has Ralph. How do we know that? Simply because they did what they did. In the past, we know for certain that that Ralph preferred partying to studying, because that’s exactly what he did. He might now wish that he had made different choices in the past, but what he really wishes is that he could have both his partying life in the past and Bobby’s money in the present, which as is impossible as a fat man wishing he can have both his cakes in the past and a thin body in the present.

Well, it is not impossible, but more a logical contradiction. A fat man might look at a dieter’s gains and say that he wants the dieter’s thinner body as well as all the unhealthy food he, the fat man, currently eats. Bobby is at a disadvantage because Ralph can steal Bobby’s money in the present, but Bobby cannot reach into the past and steal Ralph’s fun. Bobby’s money is as much a part of Bobby’s life as Ralph’s memories of fun are a part of Ralph’s – but only one of them is transferable. It is this general imbalance which makes the State so dangerous, and its corruption, violence and growth so inevitable. The State can grant Ralph his wish. Ralph can have all the benefits of his party life in the past as well as some of Bobby’s additional income in the present. The value of deferring pleasure thus becomes watered down, and so discipline and hard work become more and more useless, a sucker’s game, and freedom, wealth and morality are diminished thereby. (Also, since the pursuit of immediate gratification tends to disperse capital, by rewarding it, fewer jobs are created, which threatens Ralph’s long-term livelihood in a very powerful but subtle manner.)

So the question becomes: how does Ralph portray himself in order to gain sympathy for his desire to steal Bobby’s hard-earned money? Well, the first step is to vividly portray his present losses while never mentioning any of his past gains. “I’m poor, he’s rich, it’s not fair – in fact, he might well be rich because I’m poor!” Thus a sick smoker points out the pain of his illness while never mentioning the years of pleasure he derived from smoking. Veterans (except draftees) tend to make the same case. They talk of the horrors of wounds and wars, without mentioning the money, travel and moral praise they garnered through their dedication to the murderous arts.

The fact is that if a man speaks honestly of both the benefits and losses of his choices, we may listen with interest, but we will scarcely pity him. If a man says that adultery destroyed his marriage, but that he honestly preferred having an affair to being married, how can we pity him? We might disagree, but we wouldn’t see him as any kind of victim, because only children and those subject to violence can be victimized. Adults making choices can’t honestly claim victimization, since all choices have both benefits and drawbacks, due to the simple fact that both time and resources are limited.

The second argument that these people tend to make is that free will was, in their case, absent. They claim, for a variety of reasons, that they were unable to act in their own best interest. They didn’t go to night school because they were ‘underprivileged’, or because they didn’t know anyone else who did it, or because their parents were mean, or some other reason.

But if people are genuinely unable to act in their own best interest, it is hard to understand why they would then say to politicians: if you go and steal some of Bobby’s money and give it to us, we’ll be sure to vote for you.

It’s a breathtaking contradiction. If Ralph makes the above request, then he clearly recognizes that he would be better off if he had some of Bobby’s money. If he is willing to vote in a politician who will steal some of Bobby’s money for him, then he is certainly willing and able to act in a manner which maximizes his material benefits. Thus he is perfectly willing to take a certain action which benefits him materially – voting for a certain politician – and he is willing to forego other pleasures in order to perform that action. Thus it is hard to understand Ralph’s logic. How can he simultaneously be unable to make choices which benefit his own long-term interest (study instead of party) and yet also able to act to benefit it (vote for income distribution from Bobby to himself). The truth of the matter is that Ralph’s ‘value threshold’ is just very low. To gain a thousand dollars, he will cast a vote, but not work weekends for a month. To gain a million dollars, he will buy a lottery ticket, but not work eighty-hour weeks for five years building a company. Thus the difference between Bobby and Ralph is a difference in degree, not in kind. Both perform actions to maximize their self interest. And so how can anyone disagree with such a personal decision as to how much work a certain gain is worth?

It is very important to understand the vast and subjective array of ‘values’ that exist in society – there are, in fact, as many value combinations as there are human beings. The time that I have spent writing this article is time that can never be applied to the pursuit of any other goal. Thus to compare value choices is largely meaningless. If I choose to write this article rather than eat or clean my bathrooms, what is the point of my complaining that I am hungry and my bathrooms are dirty? The list of things that I can complain about being undone is almost infinite in length. All that I am confirming is that, when I choose to do one thing, I am also choosing to refrain from doing everything else. It’s scarcely a breathtaking revelation. Thus the idea of rewarding or punishing me for the choices that I have made – assuming I have not used force – is entirely irrational and destructive. And that is the central reason why the State always descends into a malevolent cancer of caustic self-destruction. Irrationality always seeks out and supports violence; violence in turn extends and supports irrationality, until the end comes. It is probably too late for us to avert the end, and so we must be content to merely be instrumental in creating a new and wiser beginning.

Stefan Molynuex, is the host of Freedomain Radio (, the most popular philosophy site on the Internet, and a "Top 10" Finalist in the 2007-2010 Podcast Awards.

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April 2024

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