An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Poverty of Nations
I write this on a day when three million of the poorest people on planet Earth — living in the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere — just had a natural disaster take from them even the little they had.
Twenty-three decades ago the Scottish moral philosopher, Adam Smith, published his book An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, and in doing so offered the first principles on which to found what may someday become a science of economics. It’s obvious from our current condition that economics is not yet a science, otherwise engineers could produce as predictable practical results for economics as they can for chemistry and physics.
Thus the production and delivery of plentiful goods to the Haitians would have been a done deal years ago. Their buildings would have been built to Tokyo standards and even a 7.0 earthquake on the Richter scale would not have devastated their country.
Or maybe that’s unfair. Maybe the principles of economics are sufficiently developed for practical applications and were simply ignored. In that way any rational analysis of the devastation in Haiti would in some sense be “blaming the victims” for their failure to apply the science needed to escape from their nation’s poverty.
It’s easy to do that as an intellectual exercise. That’s a lot of what you’ll be hearing from right-wing pundits today.
It’s heartless and inhuman to make that one’s first response to the pain anyone not psychically armored against empathy will feel.
But, as a practical matter — not being wealthy enough to pay even all of my own creditors — I am unable to add very much of my own to that Haitian relief effort which wealthier human beings than I will make.
The second emotion I experience following any disaster I see on the news is a feeling of dismal futility. I can contribute little but if I did not do even this the lack of my contribution would be submarginal.
You may call this the principle of Marginal Futility, and I am being only mordantly funny.
That’s why I now supplement my marginal futility to help the Haitians with the intellectual futility of examining why this is still a problem.
The first axiom of just about any school of economics is scarcity.
The Austrian School of Economics — the school of thought to which most current-day libertarians subscribe — treats anything less than instantaneous gratification of any desire as an object of scarcity. The way writers like Murray Rothbard put it is that if you desire a Coca Cola, it would have to be trickling down your throat at the instant you desire it otherwise you would need to take some action — even it’s only lifting the bottle to chug it — to satisfy the scarcity of Coca Cola in your throat.
Both by the first premise of Austrian economics — “Human beings act to remove felt unease” — and by empirical observation of the universe around me, I’ve concluded that everything — every thing — that exists is scarce.
There is only one of two conditions to escape economics, then.
The first condition is to desire nothing. That’s the teleology offered by Zen Buddhism, whose adherents desire a state of non-desiring they call Nirvana. This logically requires total unconsciousness because the conscious mind — being active — can still perceive something new to it and desire that new thing. Arriving in Heaven would be a disastrous outcome for the Zen Buddhists, since they’d still be conscious and thus capable of desires and actions to pursue them.
The second condition is to be conscious within a reality in which the moment any desire is detected it’s instantly gratified. Lust is instantly gratified by sex and orgasm. Hunger is instantly satisfied by taste. Thirst is instantly quenched. Every itch is instantly scratched. I believe a lot of Christians think that’s what Heaven would be.
Both Zen Buddhists and many fundamentalist Christians appear to idealize the condition of the fetus in the womb. It exists and — if it desires anything — that desire is instantly satiated.
Birth just ruins everything.
The conscious, active mind is incapable of existing in either of these conditions permanently. The mind stuck in either of these conditions will eventually atrophy and die from boredom.
Thus, economic scarcity is a fundamental condition of being sapient, whether as a mortal or immortal.
Heaven, itself, must have an economic life.
The pursuit of happiness is therefore an economic study as much as a spiritual study, and that is a universal truth.
I am a creative person by activity and profession. My professional life has been devoted to bringing into existence — or trying to — information objects — stories, scripts, novels, movies, and even inventions — that have not previously existed.
Three novels would not have existed if I had not written them.
One feature film would not have existed if I did not write, produce, and direct it.
There is at least one invention I have “on the drawing board” that will not exist unless I manage to get it produced, tested, and — if market-worthy — manufactured and offered for sale.
I do not believe in the concept of creation ex nihilo — out of nothingness. Therefore, all creation is working with the stuff you find around you and recombining what you find into new things.
As a practical matter, as well as in economic theory, nothing is so plentiful as not to be an object of desire.
Even the ocean is scarce if you live in the desert … or on a planet that doesn’t have one.
There are those who think there are already too many people and wish to reduce the human population by discouraging human fecundity. They think the earth has limited resources and if human population growth continues unabated our species will use them up.
But they have it just backwards. The only actual resource is intelligence, and every human body comes with the potential of being that mind which solves the problem of satisfying a need. So I say: the more minds the merrier. Be fruitful and both multiply and divide.
The solution for poverty is the creation of new and plentiful wealth. But as every indie filmmaker like me quickly learns, there’s nothing to distribute if you don’t first produce it.
That principle could have saved Haiti. And I hope it will before Haiti needs saving from some new disaster.
The wealth of this planet is the fruits produced by the free and individual human mind. That requires a society which values the free and individual human mind, and offers the protection of property rights in what they create.
The libertarian movement is now made up largely of intellectuals who do not believe that. They think because something can be copied that it’s not scarce and therefore the rules of economics state that it can’t be claimed by its creator as property.
They haven’t understood the first principles of economics. They don’t “grok” the pyramid of premises — from the “is” to the “ought” — which necessitates the recognition of property rights as the source of all progressive capitalism leading to human wealth. They left their common sense in their rear-view mirrors.
That’s one big reason I no longer consider myself part of the libertarian movement.
I just wrote a book called Unchaining the Human Heart — A Revolutionary Manifesto. It’s about the same length as The Communist Manifesto and Quotations from Chairman Mao (“The Little Red Book.”)
Feel free to start a new revolutionary libertarian movement around it.
But don’t expect me to be hanging around when it finally gets going.
Meanwhile, if you have a spare buck or two, find a way to get it to someone who might actually help the Haitians, rather than the usual thieves who will ask for your money then pocket it themselves.
It might be futile but then, what isn’t on this darned planet?