Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Causes of Darkness

Is there anyone so foolish as to walk into a darkened room and hunt for the darkness generator to turn it off so he can see?

No one looks for the cause of the darkness; rather we look for something that might create light and turn it on, or find something that is blocking light (curtains or a closed shutter) and remove it.

Darkness has no causes. Darkness is the state when there are no causes, specifically nothing that effectively causes (creates) light.

The first time I watched Charlie Rose on television he was interviewing Dr. Henry Louis Gates and Dr. Cornell West, both on the Harvard faculty at the time. During the interview, the three of them fell to discussing the causes of poverty and the importance of identifying those causes and eliminating them.

That was when it dawned on me: the discussion was utter nonsense. These three educated and intelligent people acted as if homo sapiens appeared endowed with such wealth that each family had a four-bedroom home in the suburbs with central heating, electricity, plentiful food and clean water, efficient health care, two cars, a 401K, and all the other components of first-world wealth. But, somewhere along the way, something happened to cause poverty to break out and infect the greater part of humanity.

If only we can identify that “something” and reverse it, universal affluence will be restored.

If such bright people can be such fools, will we be able to solve the problems that inhibit most of humanity from creating and sharing in the wealth that is possible?

I am chagrined it took me decades of reading “causes of poverty” articles before I realized the utter foolishness of that line of thinking. Perhaps I never paid that much attention to it. Perhaps I was handicapped by my education.

Poverty is like darkness: Abject poverty is the default, normal if you will, condition of humanity. The question isn’t “why are some people poor?” but “why are some people wealthy?” International relief agencies and organizations committed to improving the lot of the poor should be studying the causes of wealth and figuring out why they aren’t working. Studying the causes of poverty is effete.

Don’t turn off the darkness switch, turn on the light switch.

Adam Smith published his analysis of how societies create wealth 230 years ago: The Wealth of Nations. Milton Friedman, F.A. Hayek, and others have updated and elaborated on Smith’s work, but there has been nothing to refute or replace it.

Smith explained what causes wealth, but rival world views – including those put forth by the Catholic Church, Rousseau, the followers of Marx, Fascists, and Progressives don’t like the answer. Probably because Smith’s analysis shows them as inhibiting human wealth, not contributing to it.

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