Wealth and Poverty
In April of 1913, R.H. Tawney wrote in his commonplace book: “People want rights—freedom, in order that they may perform duties. The hardship of the wage-earner is not simply that he has insufficient food and housing, but that he is deprived of the means of performing certain primary duties, care of home, wife and family, direction of the industry by which he lives, a share in public life. Hence the way of freedom is also the way of duty.” Here is a vision of what the goals of a welfare state ought to be: to relieve distress, certainly, but also to recognize and enhance the sense of social membership. Welfare programs that don’t serve both these goals should be criticized and reformed.
One might say, charitably, that George Gilder’s Wealth and Poverty is an attempt at just such a critique and reformation, and, indeed, everything useful that Gilder has to say about welfare is already contained in Tawney’s “commonplace.” Except incidentally, however, it is not Gilder’s purpose to make specific criticisms or propose specific reforms. Instead, the failure of welfare programs to enhance social membership, when in fact they fail, is for him only a pretext for a general attack on the welfare state, modern liberalism, and social democracy.
Wealth and Poverty is a diatribe and a panegyric. It is a diatribe against egalitarian reformers, welfare bureaucrats, social workers, academic radicals, upper-class “defectors,” liberal editorialists, fashionable publishers, civil rights workers, and feminists—above all, feminists, who turn out to be the deepest and most dangerous enemies of capitalism. It is a panegyric for entrepreneurs, businessmen, risk-takers, investors, the thrifty poor, and aggressive males—above all, aggressive males, the true source of capitalist wealth. Gilder believes that welfare only makes the poor poorer, sinks them in the mire of dependency and moral decay. If they are ever to escape, what they need above all is “the spur of their poverty.” (Why there were ever poor people in the dim years before the welfare state is, on his view, very hard to understand: the spur of their poverty is the one thing the poor have always had.) What the wealthy need, by contrast, is more money. Their spur is greater and greater wealth—low taxes and capital gains. All the complex ills of the US economy today come down to this: we take too much money from successful businessmen, and we give too much money to the poor.
The refrain is familiar enough, and it makes for a defense of privilege that occasionally rises, as we shall see, to lyrical heights. But Gilder’s book does have its peculiar features, and chief among these is his view of Man and Woman. Even here, it would not be difficult to trace the sources of his argument; what is peculiar is the feverish pitch and the rising note of hysteria with which he presents it. The male of the human species, it seems, is not by nature …