How to Get the Poor Off Our Conscience

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How to Get the Poor off Our Conscience

John Kenneth Galbraith

I would like to reflect on one of the oldest of human exercises, the process by which over the years, and indeed over the centuries, we have undertaken to get the poor off our conscience.

Rich and poor have lived together, always uncomfortably and sometimes perilously, since the beginning of time. Plutarch was led to say: “An imbalance between the rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of republics.” And the problems that arise from the continuing co-existence of affluence and poverty–and particularly the process by which good fortune is justified in the presence of the ill fortune of others — have been an intellectual preoccupation for centuries. They continue to
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One of the most notable American spokespersons of Social Darwinism was John D. Rockefeller–the first Rockefeller–who said in a famous speech: “The American Beauty rose can be produced in the splendor and fragrance which bring cheer to its beholder only by sacrificing the early buds which grow up around it. And so it is in economic life. It is merely the working out of a law of nature and a law of God.” [Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives was written during the time of Social Darwinism and played a major role in this ideology’s demise.]

In the course of the present century, however, Social Darwinism came to be considered a bit too cruel. It declined in popularity, and references to it acquired a condemnatory tone. We passed on to the more amorphous denial of poverty associated with Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. They held that public assistance to the poor interfered with the effective operation of the economic system–that such assistance was inconsistent with the economic design that had come to serve most people very well. The notion that there is something economically damaging about helping the poor remains with us to this day as one of the ways by which we get them off our conscience. [It doesn’t follow, however, that government aid to the affluent is morally damaging; see “The Next New Deal” and “Reining in the Rich”.]

With the Roosevelt revolution (as previously with that of Lloyd George in Britain), a specific responsibility was
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