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That Not So Elusive Poverty

In a recent post, “Worst Nelson Mandela Quote Ever,” I proposed that one of Mandela’s most famous quotes about poverty exemplifies a disastrous understanding of reality,[1] particularly for a political figure with the power to establish policy. It sounds good on the surface, especially in regard to the complex and deeply racist political and social circumstances in which Mandela spent most of his life in South Africa, but it reveals a fundamental misperception of human nature and human interaction with nature, and also, therefore, of the true causes of poverty and processes of general prosperity.[2]

Mandela is quoted as saying, “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”[3]

However a person perceives the immediate situation of South Africa, one must ask, are these statements universally true? They are certainly worded as universal truths. Are they the truths of poverty behind individual circumstance or merely those resting on the surface of some situations? We might break this statement down thus:

  1. Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity.
  2. Overcoming poverty is an act of justice.
  3. Poverty is like Slavery and Apartheid.[4]
  4. Poverty is not natural.
  5. Poverty is man-made.
  6. Poverty can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.

Let’s take these out of order.

“Poverty is not natural.” This is the broken foundation for all the others, for poverty is the most natural thing of all. Only wealth requires work. Poverty is the natural end of individuals and systems that do not successfully gather, produce and sustain wealth in all its forms—resources, food & water, shelter, garments, products sustaining life, products making life easier, more comfortable & enjoyable and, in most systems, currency that represents the value of these things. Healthy economies in which the general standards of living of most is increasing are like delicate ecosystems. Many things need to be in place and any one of a thousand things can send them off the rails. Prosperity is like a never-ending struggle to defy the gravity that is poverty.

“Poverty is man-made,” and “Poverty can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”

  • 1st, keep in mind that Mandela has already nixed the role of charity in all this.
  • 2nd, this can be true; situations have often arisen where the poverty of one group has been consciously orchestrated by another. I think a better description of this process, however, is that the struggles of one group to defy the gravity that is poverty has often been deliberately and forcibly hindered or hamstrung by another group.
  • 3rd, as noted above, poverty does not need to be created, it is the natural slide of every system. Economies are delicate things that are too complex to be artificially controlled by a few, particularly if those seeking that control are third party interferers in the economic exchanges of others.
  • 4th, the poor will always be with us in some form, as Jesus said, because poverty is the natural state of the ignorant and the indolent. It takes gathering, producing and sustaining wealth to both escape poverty and to prevent the natural slide toward poverty. The ignorant and indolent, therefore, have poverty woven into the fabric of their souls. They will always be with us to greater or lesser extents.

“Poverty is like Slavery and Apartheid.” No. Poverty may be a result of systems like Slavery and Apartheid, but they are not “alike.” Two are systems of governance. One is the absence of successful gathering, production and sustenance of wealth in its many forms.

“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity.” “Overcoming poverty is an act of justice.”

  • These fall naturally from the others, which fall naturally from the first. In this vision, the poor are not victims of their own natures, their own inclinations, their own ignorance and indolence… EVER. The poor are victims of other people’s calculated war to keep them down.
  • As one TV character recently said, “No man ever made a profit except that some other man lost everything.” This a version of Zero-sum economics—the idea that in every economic exchange, one party gains and the other party loses… that all profit is theft.
  • Therefore, to suggest that charity is a virtue, is, to these souls, to suggest that a thief who has stolen all you have is being charitable when he throws a dollar into your beggars cup the next day.
  • When economic exchange is a matter of theft, then the only remedy is legal, the only fix political.
  • Justice ceases to be a system based on consistent laws and processes and becomes an ad hoc manipulation of every situation by a powerful political force to make every outcome equal… to remedy through unequal processes of law the inequalities of nature, knowledge and input.
  • The grand question, once one has settled on the fact that these are logical entailments of faulty perceptions of the nature of man and man’s interaction with nature, is whether such systems of ad hoc manipulation and unequal legal processes create environments that foster general prosperity or whether they undermine the “ecology” of general economic prosperity. Do they promise as much harm as, or even more harm than, the racist systems Mandela rightfully hated in South African Apartheid?


[1] I am not an expert on Nelson Mandela and have only loosely followed his activity since his release. Nor am I an economist, though I have studied some economic and political theory. I shared my thoughts here with a Zimbabwean who spent many years in South Africa during the years of Apartheid and who has followed the policies of Mandela more closely than I have. He gave me a general nod of approval for my sentiments here, though any errors are my own. These are my personal reflections on complex issues.

[2] I do not wish to single out Mandela for criticism here. I have great respect for him on a personal level in light of the stances on forgiveness and peace that he has taken since his release from prison. Mandela’s comments, however, serve to represent a perception that is shared by many, particularly those feeding from the trough of progressive/Marxist/communist/socialist ideology.

[3] I have striven to verify this quote. Although it appears on the websites of numerous organizations and in the dozens of lists of Nelson Mandela quotes, I have not been able to exactly place it. If you can identify its origins please let me know.

[4] One might say that this arrangement is not a fair picture… he merely says that they are alike in regards to being unnatural. I’ll make less of this element of the quote than others, but will address the relationships that I see at work.

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