What causes poverty and hardship? Is it scarcity – not enough stuff to go around? Or is it a result of violence and enslavement of one class of people by another?
Your answer to this question will fundamentally determine whether your political allegiance is with the Right or the Left.
Under the French Monarchy and the Catholic Church of the time, there was some truth to the oppression/victimhood view of poverty. There was a ruling class who were corrupt and an unbelievably impoverished populace – by our standards, and by the standards of the young United States.
Thomas Jefferson wrote about France at the time: "of twenty millions of people… there are nineteen millions more wretched, more accursed in every circumstance of human existence than the most conspicuously wretched individual of the whole United States."
The French revolution introduced this mass of people living in poverty and misery to the realm of political power. In 1789, most peasants were sharecroppers or laborers on church lands – or lands of feudal lords to a lesser extent. By 1793, they owned their own land bought from the revolutionary government, which had confiscated all church lands. Peasants were now landowners who grew food abundantly and prospered – and thus became the Revolution's biggest supporters.
As the events of that revolution unfolded, the cause of liberty was abandoned and replaced by the Reign of Terror. The shift away from freedom as a driving force was a disastrous mistake, as Maximilien Robespierre himself, the leader of the Terror, acknowledged in his final speech: "We shall perish because, in the history of mankind, we missed the moment to found freedom." Two days later, on July 28, 1794, he was guillotined himself (face up, by the way).
Prior to the French Revolution, poverty had been seen as the result of scarcity. If you have a hundred cows, and a hundred thousand people, and nothing changes, you're going to have an awful lot of people without cows.
The rational solution to this problem then becomes: "how can I produce more cows?"
The French Revolution initially addressed this by allowing the peasants to own their own land, but as communists took it over (although they knew to leave the peasants' land alone) the idea that poverty is caused primarily by oppression took hold. A few decades later, it was Karl Marx who made this idea explicit.
Instead of being seen as the natural state of man unless and until he created greater abundance, poverty was now viewed as the result of some people doing violence to others, oppressing them into poverty and slavery: "the notion that poverty is the result of exploitation through a 'ruling class' which is in the possession of the means of violence." (Hannah Arendt, On Revolution pg. 52 – I have drawn much in this column from this fantastic work.)
This view assumed abundance as our birthright, and poverty the perversion of that birthright.
These two explanations are polar opposites of each other, and they each demand opposite remedies:
The first view, poverty resulting from scarcity, is most effectively solved by vibrant, laissez-faire capitalism.
The second view can only be solved by somehow stopping the oppressors; violently overturning them and their social order to prevent them from doing what they do.
As Arendt observes: "By reducing property relations to the old relationship which violence, rather than necessity, establishes between men, he (Marx) summoned up a spirit of rebelliousness that can spring only from being violated, not from being under the sway of necessity."
Marx created an enemy as an explanation of misery, and the resulting anger and bitterness has had a powerful and destructive effect.
It is this world view that Leftist teachers and professors instill in their students; it is this world view that our media seeks to make into consensual knowledge; it is this world view that our Left wing politicians are infused with; and it is this view that inspires our community organizer President to get people to see that they are oppressed at the hands of "the system," in order to rile them up to want to overthrow that system. (i.e., to "fundamentally change the United States of America.")
The Left needs poverty for their theory. They need hardship and suffering. So they are happy to demagogue any examples that they can (the War on Poverty; the crisis of pre-existing medical conditions, etc.).
On the other hand, if your view is that poverty is the result of scarcity; if your solution to poverty is the creation of greater wealth and prosperity through innovation and productivity, then you will be looking to limit the role of government to interfere with that process.
You will look to open up the markets, and to make it easier for more and more people to create more and more value, spreading the resulting prosperity to every corner of the land.
What the Left sarcastically referred to as "trickle down economics" during the Reagan years, is the very antidote to poverty and misery that our world view of America's founding principles prescribes.
This is not comprehensible to the person sold on the concept of poverty and misery as victimhood.
There is a certain kind of satisfaction to seeing oneself as the victim of overwhelming forces. There is a clear target for your anger and resentment; there is a concrete goal in overturning the power of those forces; and there is relief from responsibility for your own actions.
This is why even under the circumstances of undreamt of prosperity that we enjoy today (one wonders whether even Marx would have persisted in his beliefs had he seen the potential for prosperity for all that capitalism would provide), the Left continues to promote the psychological perspective of victimhood.
The cost of this perspective is dear.
Feelings of powerlessness, of helplessness, and of personal impotence are psychologically devastating. Such feelings are prescriptions for depression, anxiety, and misery, and they undermine a sense of personal agency and efficacy – the sense that you have the ability to make things happen in your life.
Though the leaders of the Left enjoy the benefits of making important things happen, their world view has the effect of instilling this sense of victimhood in its followers – with one exception: by participating in the overwhelming movement of historical and social forces in which those on the Left believe, you get to be a member of a powerful group.
By being part of the movement of the Left, you get to feel the power of history, the power of natural forces sweeping you and your cohorts to the vanguard of the new world order – or so you think.
The feeling of being part of an extended group that you feel is powerful and effective can be exhilarating – and there's nothing inherently bad about it. In fact it can be a very satisfying part of life. I've had that feeling on teams; we can feel it within our churches or other communities; I think many of us have had such a feeling at freedom oriented gatherings. Our love of America is a manifestation of this emotional quality.
But if this group sense is your only source of self-esteem, you can get stuck in a bind, particularly if it looks as though your "team" is not so powerful after all. If that happens, it can feel as though your whole identity is threatened, and the resulting emptiness can leave you with feelings akin to desperation.
The Left has had quite a successful ride for over a century now. The spread of Marx's theories and the birth of the progressive movement in the nineteenth century, the Communist/socialist revolutions of the twentieth century, the growth in America of the socialism/fascism of the progressives and liberals.
But with the fall of the Soviet Union, and the success of Reagan's "trickle down economics," the Left has been reeling from setbacks, even as they continued to persist in growing the power of government in America.
What's fascinating to behold, is that the very forces that Marx used to fuel his communist vision have turned. That "spirit of rebelliousness that can spring only from being violated, not from being under the sway of necessity," has shifted to face down the Left in the form of the Tea Parties.
We feel violated. We feel that we have been oppressed and enslaved "as the result of exploitation through a 'ruling class' which is in the possession of the means of violence" – in our case the left-wing media, academia, and government officials of both parties.
Our freedom has been compromised by those who had previously claimed victimhood at the hands of greedy selfish capitalists, and we now feel the sense of urgency and righteousness of a people violated, the momentum of history, and belonging to a powerful and effective group.
The difference is that what we seek is not oppression of others, but freedom for us all to flourish and prosper.
By advocating individual liberty, we are advocating personal agency over victimhood; peaceful exchange of value over forced expropriation; personal happiness and satisfaction over the exhilaration of mass hysteria.
It takes time for this view to take hold, because it is one order of abstraction further than immediate retribution for perceived past wrongs. It takes a moment to consider what is best as a system for all concerned, a step away from the immediate passion of reactive emotion.
But the truth continues to show itself, and the Left has become less and less able to predict and explain events, because their view is fundamentally inaccurate.
Gradually, if we are fortunate and effective, more and more people who had passively or actively identified with the world view of the Left may come to face the wisdom of Sherlock Holmes:
"When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."
As improbable as it may seem from the Left, individual liberty and free markets are the greatest political forces for good on this earth. Our greatest hope is the objectively measurable nature of this truth over time.