Driving to work recently, I pulled up behind a car stopped at a traffic signal. Glancing down, I noticed a sticker neatly attached to the left bumper. I blinked. "Poverty is violence," it said. Equating those two concepts so directly sent my mental wheels into overdrive. What philosophy did the owner sitting so closely in front of me possess that he would announce that kind of judgment? Did he really believe such a thing?
As my mind spun around all the ways in which that slogan erred or misled, the light changed to green. Slowly, the car ahead of me pulled away. As it did so, my gaze slid to the right. There, on the right side of the bumper -- mirroring the other message -- was another sticker proclaiming that, "Peace begins at home. Stop domestic abuse."
The juxtaposition of the ideas contained in those two short advertisements gave me pause. The silent argument I had been conducting against the first slogan skittered to a halt. I realized that linking those two apparently related concepts on one car bumper -- and presumably in the mind of the owner, as well -- revealed a more fundamental issue that has plagued our country -- and the world in general -- for far too long. The issue of what truly constitutes violence and the responsibility which a government has to deal with such coercive behavior has grown more -- rather than less -- muddled as we move inexorably towards the next century.
It would be foolish to argue for the notion that there is no connection between violence and poverty. If by poverty we mean that someone possesses or has access to sufficient current resources to sustain himself only at or below a subsistence level, then it is easy to imagine scenarios in which violence can lead to such a result. Someone could defraud me (i.e., use indirect violence) and steal my life savings or investments and leave me penniless and homeless. Gangs or other organized criminals might burn my place of business (i.e., use direct violence) if I refused to accede to their extortion demands. In scores of locations worldwide, warring factions destroy homes, occupations, and property, and leave any hapless survivors scrounging to eke out a minimal existence. Yet poverty can also result from ignorant or stupid mistakes, from laziness, or from simple misfortune and accident having nothing to do with violence delivered by another person.
Somehow I doubt that the person who so carefully placed that first sticker had any such notions in mind. Someone announcing in no uncertain terms that "poverty is violence" in a society which for so many decades waged a "war" against poverty is most probably bringing an indictment against the American capitalistic system. In a supreme irony, the political and economic ideas which have done more than any others in the history of civilization to relieve profound misery and lift long-suffering people from the muck of poverty are castigated and reviled by the very people who have most benefited from the consequences those ideas have generated.
The myth of capitalism-as-violence seems to grow ever stronger roots as our country stumbles blindly from one economic crisis to another. As Hitler noted, the biggest, most outrageous lies are the ones most often believed. After all, who would -- or could -- make up such a thing?
If poverty is the lack of tangible or intangible property, it is little wonder that people who angrily denounce others who possess more than they do spout the (nonsensical) accusation that, "Property is theft." If all property is acquired by theft, and if theft requires the use of direct or indirect violence, then it is but a small step to believe that anyone who does not possess (sufficient?) property has been deprived of it by theft. And who owns the most property? Why, capitalists, of course. Therefore, capitalists achieved their preeminent position in society by the greatest use of violence, force, and coercion.
Of course, this argument is ultimately self-refuting. Such critics of capitalism evade any suggestion of having used violence to acquire the meager things they own. They exempt themselves from the moral guidelines they seek to use in bringing to "justice" those who "stole" from the poor.
Hybrids of such Marxist ideas abound in America. The chimera of the Nineteenth Century "Robber Barons" still stalks the imaginations of even ordinary citizens. Images of rapacious capitalists intent solely upon their own goals and willing to trample anyone who impedes the fulfillment of their desires dance across the screens of movie theaters and televisions. Greedy businessmen succeed only by suppressing and exploiting their employees, their customers, and other capitalists. In this evil realm, the strong snatch wealth from the weak in a classic example of social Darwinism. The workaday world is viewed as a kind of Nietzschean dog-eat-dog existence in which you must "get them before they get you." The pie is fixed in size, and you have to fight viciously to obtain a piece of it. The extent of your profit measures the extent of your depravity. The ultimate aim of all capitalists is to gain a monopoly in which they can threaten, extort, and oppress those who are forced to purchase their products. (Microsoft, anyone?)
If "poverty is violence," then the only force left in society to defend the impoverished from the talons of the capitalists is the one organization "owned" by all of us: our government. As holder of the legal monopoly on the use of force, governments must therefore act to punish the capitalist, to seize what he has stolen, and to redistribute those goods to those from whom it was taken. It falls to government to redress wrongs, to care for the weak and the poor who are unable to fend for themselves, to force the capitalist to adhere to "moral" behavior.
If the critics of capitalism were correct in their analysis, then government should take action against capitalists who are "responsible" for poverty. After all, the proper function of government is to retaliate with force against those who have initiated direct or indirect violence.
Yet the ideas and practices of capitalism represent the opposite of violence. Capitalism is founded on the premise of voluntary, uncoerced, contractual interactions among people making free will choices. Rather than creating injustice, capitalism is the embodiment of justice: you are rewarded or punished for the actions which you have taken. As it should be, morality under capitalism is based upon the individual, not the collective.
The violence employed throughout history to seize wealth and property has been wielded primarily either directly by governments or by others operating with the consent and backing of those governments. Wars of conquest, coercive business monopolies, and career opportunities curtailed by licensing requirements flow from the legal monopoly on the use of force held in government hands. In a capitalistic society, a businessman cannot legally compel you to purchase his wares...or even to enter his store. In a non-free society, however, the government can force you to pay for goods or services you neither want nor can use; can confiscate your wealth through taxes and inflation; can directly seize your property if you violate any of a thousand ambiguous and immoral laws.
The driver of that car I saw on the way to work correctly implied that domestic violence is wrong. It should be subject to corrective intervention by the agency which is supposed to safeguard our rights, i.e., the government. Yet perhaps even that first slogan contained a certain grain of truth -- unintentionally, I am sure, but truth nonetheless.
For if we look at what has led to the greatest levels of poverty throughout both ancient and modern history, we will discover that the actions of that agent are predicated on the use of violence. That agent, of course, is government. It represents the one source of violence we most desperately need to control if we truly desire to reduce or eliminate poverty.
The creation of wealth requires freedom. The seizure of wealth requires violence. There is no middle ground.