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Thursday, February 03, 2005
Mandela's misleading rhetoric

One of the great problems with fluffy, well-meaning rhetoric is that one's agreement with its conclusions makes one overly inclined to agree with the arguments given in support. Religious rhetoric is full of this sort of thing, and bad political rhetoric is, too.

Nelson Mandela's speech on poverty yesterday is exemplary of this tendency.

"Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural," he said, standing in Trafalgar Square - where protesters had years earlier campaigned for his release from jail under the apartheid regime. "It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings."

In the narrow sense in which a great deal could never happen without human action, this statement would be true. But the proposition that slavery or racial apartheid and segregation are somehow less "natural" than their alternatives doesn't long stand up long to historical scrutiny. Like despotism, they're not so much unnatural as the historical norm. Whether they are good things or not is of course a separate question - which is why Mandela's claims are so silly.

On poverty above all, what he says is the absolute reverse of the truth. Rhetoric like:

"[M]illions of people in the world's poorest countries remain imprisoned, enslaved and in chains. They are trapped in the prison of poverty. It is time to set them free. Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life."

... confirms the mentality of assuming that the decency and human dignity of a certain amount of wealth is natural, and that poverty is some sort of imposition.

But for poverty to exist requires no work at all, no external effort of any kind. Poverty is utterly natural. As Madsen Pirie notes: "It happens naturally when you do nothing. It is wealth that has causes."

It is wealth that is genuinely unnatural - even when won or inherited, always originating in effort and ability. To blame its absence on "prisons of poverty" and "injustice" is so standard as rhetoric about the poor that it is truly a cliche in the sense that Orwell condemned them - we say them, hear them and accept them without even thinking about them. "Poverty" and "injustice" have become almost synonyms.

But this fluffy rhetoric is dangerously misleading if it causes one to ignore the nature and causes of the wealth of nations, and instead to focus on 'freeing' people from the 'prisons' and 'impositions' of poverty. Once one begins to see poverty rather than wealth as being made, it follows automatically that one will begin to see the external unmaking of poverty, the exogenous liberation from its impositions, as a necessary and indispensable part of securing the "justice" Nelson Mandela talks about.

From these backward premises, movement towards backward, counter-productive conclusions about the solution is inescapable. Mandela's rhetoric about ensuring "trade justice" (ie. something other than free and voluntary exchange, which would simply be "trade"), and even the state ownership of all industry, which his African National Congress long advocated, are symptoms of this trap - and of course the surest ways to prevent any development of wealth.

Wealth results from secure property rights, the division of labour, low taxation and regulations and the corresponding incentives to create and produce, markets and economies both national and international as free as possible - and then nothing more than hard, productive work. Poverty continues because of the absence of these things; or more likely and most pertinently in Africa's case, the conscious suppression of some or all of them. Leave it to Nelson Mandela to advocate more of the same as the answer - but understand how easily thoughtless agreement with his woolly rhetoric can lead others to do likewise.

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