A review of The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Ageby Gertrude Himmelfarb

The idea of poverty, one might suppose, is not as important as poverty itself. Yet the principal achievement of Himmelfarb’s book is its account of how the idea of poverty (i.e., the intellectuals’ conception of poverty as something to be eliminated by social progress) became more important for politics than the poor. Today, Samuel Johnson’s remark is a common­place of leftish politics:

A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization. . . . The condition of the lower orders, the poor especially, [is] the true mark of national discrimination.

Because American society’s excellence is to be best measured by its care for the poor, sick, stigmatized, despised, helpless, and elderly, a vast welfare-education complex has been built up; weighty tomes—Rawls’s Theory of Justice lumbers into mind—have been written; multimillion-dollar political campaigns have been launched. All is for the sake, it is said, of “the least advantaged classes.” In short, more work is done on behalf of the poor, to say nothing of what is done for its immediate relief, than the poor does for itself. This is some measure of the power of the idea of poverty.

Whether or not poverty has always been with us, the idea of poverty has not. It has an historical beginning, Professor Himmelfarb argues, in the doctrine of Adam Smith. Smith’s proposition was commonsensical: In proportion as human labor is freed to produce wealth, freed from traditional or feudal social bonds upon crafts and trades and from monarchic regulations upon industry, so does the wealth of nations increase. Or, in other words, if humans spend more time producing wealth, more wealth is likely to be produced. Elaborate theoretical enterprises could be and were undertaken for and against Smith’s proposition, but the practical ques­tion was whether the common good would be served by the production of more wealth. Would the estates of men be relieved enough to compensate for the disruption of society which would inevitably result from the breaking of established social bonds and the deregulation of industry? In answering this question, the condition of the lowest orders was crucial, for these, being composed of the most dependent subjects, might experience the most drastic alteration of their lives.

Professor Himmelfarb asserts, “Indeed, it may be argued that [Smith’s Wealth of Nations] . . . was genuinely revolutionary in its view of poverty and its attitude toward the poor.” And she shows that Smith believed his “system of natural liberty,” which is today called the free enterprise system, would be a “moral economy,” because it would achieve “an end, that end being the wealth and well-being, moral and material, of the ‘people,’ of whom the ‘laboring poor’ were the largest part” (p. 63). For Adam Smith, as much as Samuel Johnson or Jesse Jackson, the progress of society was to be measured by the improvement of the condition of the poor.

The bulk of The Idea of Poverty traces the many obstacles that English intellectuals and politicians encountered in attempting to apply Smith’s measure of progress. For example, Malthus claimed that Nature sets a limit-the sterility of the soil relative to the fecundity of humans-to the increase of wealth. Others found that some among the poor actually were incorrigible, and even dangerous. This, too, can set a limit to the increase of wealth and the progress of society, as understood by Smith. Accordingly, there was quite a lot of slumming by nineteenth-century British intellectuals (Dickens is the most famous) who wished to uncover the causes and cures for poverty. Marx and Engels did the same slumming, only they did it in Universal History. Professor Himmelfarb explains these many intellectual and literary descents into the lower orders in a detail to which I could not do justice here.

She errs, if at all, only when she discusses Tocqueville, another of those who saw difficulties in Smith’s idea of social progress. In his “Memoir on Pauperism,” Tocqueville observes that wherever Smith’s system of enterprise has advanced, so has indigency. Professor Himmelfarb believes that Tocqueville means “relative deprivation” increased, but it is clear, even from her own quotations, that Tocqueville does not mean that the poor feel poorer where there is free enterprise, nor that the poor are only worse off relative to those who are not poor. Tocqueville means that economic dependency increases; for him, individual economic independence is a more important measure of social well-being than wealth, however distributed. In short, Tocque­ville holds to the old-fashioned, or strict definition of the poor: those who must work, because they work for another. Likewise, his solution to the poverty problem is old-fashioned: some land or, at worst, a trade, with which a man can set to work for himself. (Cf. Aristotle’s critique of Phaleas, Politics 1267a ff.) As solicitous as Smith was for the material and moral well-being of the poor, and as great a friend of liberty as he was, he did not see, as Tocqueville did, the demoralizing effects of dependency.

Like Smith and his many epigones, and unlike Tocqueville, Professor Himmelfarb understands poverty to be fundamentally an economic condition, not a moral-political condition. Thus she can conclude her book with the claim that the problem of poverty “itself” is “always changing,” ever relative to the always-progressing wealth of nations. However, if this were strictly true, then there could be no poverty of which British intellectuals could have had any idea. Professor Himmelfarb would have written a history of nothing. Instead, she has generously provided us with all the materials necessary for questioning the notion that civilization means getting rich.