An End to Poverty?: A Historical Debate
Gareth Stedman Jones
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In the 1790s, for the first time, reformers proposed bringing poverty to an end. Inspired by scientific progress, the promise of an international economy, and the revolutions in France and the United States, political thinkers such as Thomas Paine and Antoine-Nicolas Condorcet argued that all citizens could be protected against the hazards of economic insecurity. In An End to Poverty? Gareth Stedman Jones revisits this founding moment in the history of social democracy and examines how it was derailed by conservative as well as leftist thinkers. By tracing the historical evolution of debates concerning poverty, Stedman Jones revives an important, but forgotten strain of progressive thought. He also demonstrates that current discussions about economic issues―downsizing, globalization, and financial regulation―were shaped by the ideological conflicts of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Paine and Condorcet believed that republicanism combined with universal pensions, grants to support education, and other social programs could alleviate poverty. In tracing the inspiration for their beliefs, Stedman Jones locates an unlikely source-Adam Smith. Paine and Condorcet believed that Smith's vision of a dynamic commercial society laid the groundwork for creating economic security and a more equal society.
But these early visions of social democracy were deemed too threatening to a Europe still reeling from the traumatic aftermath of the French Revolution and increasingly anxious about a changing global economy. Paine and Condorcet were demonized by Christian and conservative thinkers such as Burke and Malthus, who used Smith's ideas to support a harsher vision of society based on individualism and laissez-faire economics. Meanwhile, as the nineteenth century wore on, thinkers on the left developed more firmly anticapitalist views and criticized Paine and Condorcet for being too "bourgeois" in their thinking. Stedman Jones however, argues that contemporary social democracy should take up the mantle of these earlier thinkers, and he suggests that the elimination of poverty need not be a utopian dream but may once again be profitably made the subject of practical, political, and social-policy debates.
was an indication of the magnitude of the felt threat. His Rights of Man was one of the bestsellers of the century; , copies had been sold by . A London merchant wrote to Henry Dundas, the Home Secretary: The Reaction in Britain Payne is a dangerous book for any person who does not share in the spoil to be left alone with and it appears that the book is now made as much a standard book in this country, as Robinson Crusoe & the Pilgrims Progress, & that if it has not its effect today,
come, and in he himself was obliged to disown his former acquaintance with the Philosophe party. Two Scottish law lords asked him to retract a small reference to Condorcet in his Philosophy of the Human Mind and to renounce ‘in an open and manly manner … every word you had ever uttered in favour of doctrines which had led to so giant a mischief ’. From February , Britain was at war with France, a war originally advocated primarily by the Girondin party. Perhaps it was the association
. Malthus himself noted a happy conjuncture between ‘character’ and ‘prudential habits’ in the period before . Furthermore, as Malthus was to admit in , the Poor Laws had not lowered the age of marriage.64 Historians generally suggest that Malthus ‘softened’ his position in the second edition of and adopted a more optimistic assessment of the chances of improvement in the condition of the poor. But this is only half true. On the question of social security and the rights of the
history of industry.’20 Just like Say, he wondered that ‘neither the extreme cheapness of labour in Hindustan, nor the perfection to which the natives had previously attained, has enabled them to 172 The Wealth of Midas withstand the competition of those who buy their cotton, and who after carrying it five thousand miles to be manufactured, carry back the goods to them. This is the greatest triumph of mechanical genius.’21 In Martineau’s case, it was rather as if by mid-century she had become
from the s to the s, that of ‘liberal Toryism’, the reasons for resisting notions of an industrial revolution, as with the associated ideas on the emancipation of labour found in the works of Say and Blanqui, were clearly political and religious rather than economic. According to Boyd Hilton, there were ‘two discrete, if sometime overlapping models of Free Trade’ in the first half of the nineteenth century. The first, and more familiar, of these was that of professional economists like