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Between the Sage and the Sufferer

Between the Sage and the Sufferer

We live in a reality there the balance swings between a world of cause and effect and a seemingly random chaotic chance. While those who are successful will trumpet their “10 rules for getting ahead” or Steven Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, there are times and lives that do everything right but still end up without success. Is this all luck or is there something else that is going on in the universe? Firstly, those who are successful often fail to acknowledge the level of advantage they were born into or the serendipitous circumstances they were the beneficiaries of. In a study conducted by a university on the emotional response to advantage, those who were obviously given a massive head start in life were more often likely to attribute their success to hard work and their own genius rather than acknowledge they were lucky. In a simple experiment, participants were asked to play a game of Monopoly with a difference. Some of the players were given twice as much money to start off with than the others and were given two dice to roll, while the rest had to roll with one die. What the experiment demonstrated was that the players with advantage often responded emotionally to the game play as if they were skilled players and deserved their wins. Even in this simple test they failed to see that the game was rigged in their favour.

In a similar fashion, those at the top often look down on others whose life has not matched their success with disdain, emotionally distancing themselves with a belief that their poverty was a result of their own moral failings rather than life circumstances that disadvantaged them from the start. To many who are in the upper income brackets, the poor are to blame for their poverty because, if they worked harder or smarter, they would not be poor. This has been proven to be wrong on so many levels but it is hard for people to see the inherent injustices of life because it seems to diminish their own achievements.

“To many who are in the upper income brackets, the poor are to blame for their poverty because, if they worked harder or smarter, they would not be poor.”

I believe it has to do with two worldviews represented in the Old Testament; that represented in the book of Proverbs and that represented in the book of Job. Both books are scripture and present truths that are essential for the Christian life, but one is easier to understand and digest than the other. The book of Proverbs represents what I would call the law of cause and effect. If you live a life of wisdom you will reap certain benefits. Actions have consequences that can affect life. The maxims, attributed to the wise King Solomon, are often simple dualisms: Do the wise thing and good things will follow. Do the unwise thing and bad things will follow. There is truth to these sayings and many have lived prosperous and happy lives having adopted their principles into their daily habits. So much so that it would be easy to assume that all lives are determined by one’s adherence to their wisdom. This is the stance taken by many Christians who adopt the Proverbs worldview alone.

But there is also the book of Job. Job is almost the opposite of proverbs: a man who has lived his life with godly wisdom is afflicted with the worst series of disasters imaginable, so much so that his friends (Proverbs theologians) are forced to attribute his suffering to his own folly and sin even though they can clearly see that his life has been exemplary. Their proverbs theology has run aground on the rocky shoals of tragedy and, instead of seeking to learn a new way of looking at the world, they instead choose to accuse Job of being a hidden sinner of the worst kind. If sin and folly leads to failure, then Jobs absolute fall to destitution and misery could only mean that Jobs sins were worse than any other. Of course the reader knows that God Himself has acquitted Job of wrongdoing and has in fact boasted about him to those in heaven and that Job’s suffering has been launched to demonstrate that God’s best man would not turn apostate even if everything was taken away from him. It was a kind of wager and only the reader is given a view of this heavenly perspective. When finally God responds to Job’s cry for answers from Heaven, He doesn’t give him what he seeks but instead reminds Job that life is not safe and that he cannot grasp the immensities of God’s understanding and dominion over creation. Job is himself silenced and humbled, and agrees that God is God and he is not.

“If Proverbs urges the reader to not self-sabotage your life, Job warns that life can still sabotage you.”

If Proverbs urges the reader to not self-sabotage your life, Job warns that life can still sabotage you. Our response to poverty and misery around us should never be to uncritically blame to sufferer. If we are prosperous we must acknowledge that there are circumstances beyond our control that have aided our rise. If others are in poorer circumstances we must also understand that they are often the victims of circumstances that are also beyond control. In all life’s manifestations we should be humble and compassionate for we don’t know who is really blessed by God and who is not.

Population Control: Whose Kids Ought to Die?

Population Control: Whose Kids Ought to Die?

“Modern medicine in the rising West may have been a boon, but it could only be darkly ambiguous in Asia as populations expanded without corresponding economic growth, pushing many into destitution.”


I have been reading Niall Ferguson’s panegyric to European economic and social superiority Civilization and I was curious as to how non-western readers responded to such mighty praise of the “white man’s” mission to “civilize” the world. Indian author Pankaj Mishra had much to say in response that I could agree with, however when he came to reject the benefits of Western medicine I had to stop and think for a bit.

In this one-line retort against Niall Ferguson’s assertion that Western medicine improved the lot of the world in general, Mishra states that any such benefits could equally be cancelled out because the people in many (particularly non-Western) countries whose lives are extended are more likely to be poor as their under-developed national economies cannot support increased numbers of people in lifestyles considered to be essential for happiness. What he appears to be saying by corollary is that, if the people cannot be materially provided for, it is better not to medically intervene. Or to put it another (simpler) way, if the poor get sick, let them die.

Mishra’s argument that western medicine had darkly ambiguous results in the non-West also hints at a sense of regret that the populations of poor people have risen in the first place. The idea of elites looking upon the growing masses of underclasses with a sense of horror that people should have to suffer under such conditions is a two-sided coin. On the one side, no one wants to see people suffer under difficult conditions, however, on the other side, these “masses” have lives and families. They laugh and play and in most ways live the life human beings have always lived. The suggestion that, if these Asian poor get sick, they shouldn’t be treated with modern medicine is inhuman. I am sure Mishra would never state his ideas in this way, however these are the implications of his and the others who speak blithely of “overpopulation”. Contraception, promoted and advanced by Western medical science, is not mentioned. Before we in the more affluent societies stroke our chins wisely and speak of the tragedy of growing populations of poor people, lets remember that human life without modern affluence is not, by definition, worse than death.

The biblical character Job declares that, after having once being rich and prosperous he is horrendously afflicted with poverty and disease, he wishes he had never been born. However It is the fall from the heights that make’s Job’s story a tragedy, not the state of poverty itself. It is also a mistake to equate poverty as a single state without the same gradients of economic levels that we equate with those not poor. The world is not binary – the poor and the not poor. Lack of economic security does not necessarily mean a life not worth living.

I am not speaking about the earnest need to alleviate the plight of poor individuals. I am speaking about the way in which the growing numbers of people who are born into poverty are grouped together and assessed as a single negative economic statistic. Such language creates the impression that economists and sociologists look upon the birth of every child to a poor family as an intolerable burden to be born by children in affluent families. If medical improvements to extend the lives of the poor in fact worsen the global situation, is it not then a corollary to say that it is better for everyone if the poor just died young like they used to?

To assume that it was better that the poor not be born, is the height of and elitist worldview. “Poor” people do not regret their birth. Perhaps some affluent people, looking down at the masses whom they know will never achieve the standard of living they themselves have, might regret their growing numbers. While I was in Hout bay, South Africa, dining at the large and beautiful home of a British expat family, my hosts pointed out a dark smudge between two distant hills, an encroaching shantytown spreading out from Capetown to blight their serene landscape. To them it was a cancerous tumor signalling to them that their pretty little affluent seaside town was about to be visited by the post-apartheid reality. It was clear they were saddened, not for the plight of the occupants of the hovels, but for themselves as their increasing proximity to the poor dimmed their own happiness. My hosts looked at the shantytown perhaps like population control experts do, feeling modern medicine’s success has had darkly ambiguous results.

For any individual human being the choice to live longer is usually a no-brainer. Do we want to die early of disease? No. Does anyone want to see their children die in infancy or early childhood? Never! In that respect the poor are just like the rich. They want to live as long as they can, even if that means they are poor. The choice of being poor or dead is also a no-brainer, except perhaps to those who are currently affluent and can’t imagine a life in which survival is a struggle. “I’d rather be dead than poor!” sounds like something Paris Hilton would say. Most “normal” people, If they really had to face that choice, would “choose life”.

The rhetoric of “population control” has been in vogue since the 1960s when Paul Ehrlich, a biologist, argued that the Earth’s biosphere could not sustain any further human expansion due to limited agricultural potential. Ehrlich extrapolated his research on butterfly populations to create his vision of a human apocalypse of hunger and death. But he failed to understand that, with increased economic development, birth rates tend to fall. Ehrlich was essentially regurgitating Thomas Malthus’ 18th century argument that agricultural output was not sufficient to support large population expansions. In 1898 Malthus failed to see the advances in agriculture that could increase land productivity and boost agricultural output. Similarly Ehrlich, nearly two hundred years later, refused to believe that there were any further revolutions in food production to come. Time and human creative ingenuity have demonstrated again and again that he was wrong.

In the eyes of the Biblical God each person is a miraculous creation of great worth. Each child born is a joy to God and each loving parent an imperfect representation of the imago Dei. As Christian thinkers we must resist the rhetoric of “population bombs” and the “population control” as much as we would abortion or radical birth control. We must fight to make the existing human population less poor without demanding that there be less poor people.

Poverty by Design

Poverty by Design

“Poverty is not an accident. Like slavery and apartheid, it is man-made and can be removed by the actions of human beings.”

Nelson Mandela

A South African Christian leader I greatly respect once explained his country’s former policy of Apartheid as merely “separate development”, implying that it was not a policy designed to oppress the blacks but an allowance of the natural cohabitation of two very different social and economic cultures. My friend didn’t deny that the enforced separation was in any way a good thing, but the implication was that the blacks of South Africa were not ready to accept modern economic or social institutions and that their economic backwardness (compared to the obvious modern development of the white-dominated society) resulted from their traditional (and inferior) culture. What he did not say was that this common view denied the historical truth that such an economic backwardness was not the result of any traditional values, but was a government policy plan.
The South Africa of the Apartheid era represented the idea of the “dual economy”, modern industry co-existing with traditional poverty. This idea was originally described by Julius Herman Boeke in his 1942 book The Structure of Netherlands Indian Economy, where he argued that in the Dutch East Indies (modern Indonesia) the modern Western economy (characterized by modern commercial industrialization) could co-exist with a more traditional economy (characterized by poorer, underdeveloped agricultural communities). The industrialized sector was managed and maintained by white colonials, who reaped the benefits of modern prosperity, while the more rural Indonesians co-existed on a lower plane within the same country.

This theory was later developed by West Indian economist Arthur Lewis into a model by which developing nations could become more industrialized. Lewis, who received the Nobel Prize in economics in 1979, took for granted that many countries held dual economies due to the clash of modern industrial colonial powers with the intrinsic backward culture of their subordinate indigenous populations. In many ways Lewis had perhaps adopted the idea that industrial and commercial development was somehow alien to the non-western inhabitants of the world and they had to be lead into modern prosperity by the “white man”. It did not occur to him that poverty and commercial under-development might not be an accident of culture but might in fact be deliberate policy of suppression by colonists.

The idea that commerce and industry is a uniquely white Western invention has been recently championed by Niall Ferguson in his popular book Civilization: The West and the Rest (mentioned in my previous blog). Ferguson’s argument, that the West developed uniquely due to it’s own cultural “killer apps”, sounds convincing, and he does have some points in his favour, however he does not address the issue of non-white cultures that began the process of commercial development but were forcibly deviated from the path by brutal European policies that destroyed local economies in the cause of gaining economic advantage for themselves.

In 1599 the Maluku Islands in the modern-day Indonesian archipelago were the main producers of the spices nutmeg, mace and cloves, all in high demand in Europe. While there were various trade monopolies set up between the rulers of many of the Islands and the Portuguese, the Spanish and the Dutch, a small group of the islands banded together under a mutual agreement to open the trade to competing buyers and to form the beginnings of a commercial organization (similar to modern-day OPEC). This would have allowed them to have a far greater share of the wealth from their produce and to bargain with the European powers as near equals. The Dutch East India company, finding they could not subvert the group through bribery or by co-opting their leaders, decided to destroy the nascent cartel by eliminating the people themselves. The Dutch colonials massacred over 15,000 Maluku Islanders and forced the remainder of the population into slavery to work on their now wholly-owned spice plantations. Some Maluku survivors fled to other parts of the archipelago taking the news. Other independent spice-producing islands and mainland groups, fearing a similar fate, destroyed their spice crops and reduced themselves to subsistence agriculture in order to avoid attracting the attention of the avaricious Dutch. The potential for early independent commercial development in South-East Asia was stifled.

There are other examples that are perhaps less dramatic but nonetheless effective in eliminating indigenous development along European lines. While it cannot be argued that many countries would have had their own industrial revolution had it not been for the horrible white man’s interference, the idea that adoption of economic development is not intrinsic to non-Western cultures has to be given a kick by the facts of history.

If we go back to South Africa, the (predominantly white) idea that it was black African cultural backwardness that caused the tremendous poverty seen in the 20th century (and even today) is typical of the historical amnesia that effects many in the country. During the nineteenth century many European visitors noticed that many black farmers took the opportunities available to them to buy land and begin their own farms, weakening the traditional holds the tribal chiefs had over them. The chiefs, fearing the lessening of their own power, tried to resort to traditional means of control, the witch doctors, however increasing black aspirations to commercial success meant that these fear incentives to force control diminished in power. With near equal property rights between blacks and whites, the number of industrious black farmers grew. However, with the discovery of huge diamond deposits in the interior, the need arose for cheap labour for the new mines, labour that could not be easily gathered amidst growing black prosperity. In order to remove blacks from the land, the Natives Land Act of 1913 legislated that 92% of all the land had to be in white ownership with all the black people (80% of the population) forcibly moved to the remaining 7% of the land. This small percentage was increased to 13% in 1936. To add to this, the mining industry introduced the first “colour bar” which stated that no black person could work in skilled trades, the list of which was long and detailed. The only work black people could undertake in the mines was unskilled labour. This colour bar was expanded to the whole economy in 1926. Between 1911 and 1921 wages for mine workers dropped 30% and even by 1961 mine wages were still 12% below 1911 levels.

Education for the blacks was also discouraged with few (if any) black schools being funded by the government. In the 1950s the government under prime minister Hendrick Verwoerd introduced the “Bantu Education Act” which attempted to limit the kinds of education blacks could undertake. This Act locked the blacks of South Africa out of the modern world economy and out of the potential for western levels of prosperity. This was the stated goal of the Act and Apartheid as a whole. Verwoerd himself stated the fact in a 1954 speech:

The Bantu must be guided to serve his own community in all respects. There is no place for him in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour. Within his own community, however, all doors are open. For that reason it is to no avail to him to receive training which has as its aim absorption into the European community while he cannot and will not be absorbed there.

For the supply of cheap labour to be guaranteed, the white nation needed a black population uneducated, impoverished and devoid of all economic aspirations. The poverty of South African blacks had nothing to do with the backwardness of their culture or their lack of economic aspiration. In order to prevent economic competition and the ensure a cheap labour supply, the black South Africans were systematically impoverished over decades. Generations later, when modern whites look upon the vast shanty towns with horror, they forget that this economic situation was their own past government’s design.
I don’t write this to inflame hatred or to kick sleeping dogs. Apartheid was abolished nearly 20 years ago and an entire generation of South Africans of all colours have grown up without the institutional racism that afflicted their parents. What I want to communicate is that poverty is not always due to the inherent nature of particular people groups or cultures. Today we in the west look on our less developed neighbors and and shake our heads, wondering why they can’t be more like us. But we must remember that many tried and were forcibly held back from development and prosperity by the greed of powerful individuals and groups who didn’t look upon the brown-skinned people they came across as potential partners in commerce but as inferiors worthy of little more than exploitation if compliant or, in extreme cases, extermination.

Greater prosperity for all often has to mean less prosperity for some and it is these few who reap the lion’s share of economic benefits who have the most to lose in a fairer world. Austrian political scientist Joseph Schumpeter argued that economic progress often involves what he called “creative destruction” of the old forms, often represented by the power-holding elites. Whenever this destruction has been allowed to take its toll on traditional power bases, new, often more democratic forms of power have emerged and greater economic development often ensues. However when the few traditional power holders manage to suppress the mass of the population and continue in power, poverty of the entire nation becomes the legacy. Many nations are poor because they have been (and continue to be) exploited by those who rule them. Just because many of us reading this are fortunate enough to have been born in a situation where our ancestors fought for an won greater freedom to become prosperous doesn’t mean that we are smarter/more industrious/more entrepreneurial than those who still live in poverty.

Further Reading.
James A Robinson and Daron Acemoglu, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty (2013).
The Natives Land Act of 1913
The Bantu Education Act No.47 of 1953
Segregationist Legislation Timeline 1856-1979

There are no invisible hands.

There are no invisible hands.

“Every individual… neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it… he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.”

Adam Smith

Life is like a piano, what you get out of it depends on how you play it.

Tom Lehrer


Due to the complexity of the world around us we have a tendency to attribute our situation to either the hand of providence (if things are good) or hidden cabals and conspiracies (if they are not). For Adam Smith things were very good. Britain in the eighteenth century was a prosperous commercial society with what appeared to be the best of all possible worlds. At least it was for Smith and those in his social class or above. It was easy for the Scottish philosopher to imagine that such good fortune had the hallmarks divine favour, and in his two treatises he described the out workings as the “invisible hand”.

Whether this invisible hand was that of God or the natural machinery of a Newtonian universe is still debated. What is agreed by Smith’s modern acolytes is that order comes out of apparent chaos, not by human design, but by sociological propensities toward selfishness. As we act toward our own self interest, Smithians would argue that “things just work out best for all concerned”, and the economy and social order rises toward ever more evolutionary perfection. It is like it is being guided by an invisible hand (see what I mean?)

What I would like to say is that this is rubbish. But I can’t say that without seeming reductionist (and crass). So I will say this; Adam Smith was only partly right. And the modern armchair economists who wax lyrical about the laissez-faire idea of free market capitalism view the world through this jaundiced looking glass. Things do NOT just work out well for everyone when we all act selfishly. Thing actually screw up majestically, mostly for those below Smith’s class, the working and the poor. This was the case in 1776 when Smith wrote his famous tome “Wealth of Nations” and it continues today. While certainly the oft-quoted “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest” contains the superficial ring of truth, it is only a part of the truth. Successful business has always had to swallow a degree of other-interest in order to maintain their client base. In other words, it’s not just about the price and supply of goods, but also the relationship between the seller and the buyer, and other nuances that create order and social benefit. Modern business knows this but classical economists still love to pontificate about “the market” as if it was a highly trained tiger that will perform its tricks meekly so long as it is fed a raw steak every now and again. I think Siegfried and Roy (or “the Tiger King”) would beg to differ.

OK, I can imagine some readers might say, “Who do you think you are to argue with centuries of economic and sociological wisdom?” Well I am nobody. But I am a nobody with a PhD in the history of political and social reform. My research took me through the ideas eighteenth-century Scottish philosophers such as Adam Smith and his contemporaries. Even then, their ideas of self-interest as the driver of providential growth was challenged by men and women who saw many social injustices the “invisible hand” allowed to continue.  Today the idea of the invisible hand of providence guiding the growth of our modern world has become a tool to hijack our economy and decimate the common good. What Milton Friedman might have shrugged helplessly and called “the market” was actually the results of decisions; decisions by people to change things, either through clever ideas, political lobbying or by mass movements of protest. Leaders with a concern for “the common good” made decisions to legislate us into the kind of prosperity we have come to see as the norm in the developed world. If we saw any kind of well-being, it wasn’t because we all acted toward our own self-interest, but because we acted partially toward this common good.

Today. Much of the world seems to many to be spiraling into chaos and disorder. I as write this, the world is aflame with protests (and some rioting) in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. We are also in the midst of the Covid-19 virus pandemic. There is a narcissistic liar ruling like a king in the United States and Britain has given a “two finger salute” as a farewell to EU membership. People are wondering how we got here. I am not totally sure, but one thing I do know is that it wasn’t Adam Smith’s invisible hand. People were to blame. Their hands are visible and their fingerprints are all over the messes we are living through. My purpose in this blog is to investigate and report what others have found about who these hands belong to, to argue for blame as well as cause and effect.

Welcome to The Visible Hand.