ROUNDTABLE: Cosmopolitan Disinterestedness and the Care for the Poor

Last Thursday, Daniel Watkins – a grad student in the history department, and a friend of the house – led a roundtable discussion on “Cosmopolitan Disinterestedness and the Care for the Poor.”  It was really interesting, and our participants had a lot to say in response. 

The term “cosmopolitan disinterestedness” is descriptive of where we are at this point in history, for the most part, in our attitude toward the poor.  He quoted from a recent bestselling book, The Total Money Makeover, to illustrate the attitude that our economic system works so well that if it isn’t working for you, there must be something wrong with you. 

“My promise to you is this: If you will follow the guidelines of this proven system of sacrifice and discipline, you can be debt-free, begin saving, and give as you’ve never given before.  You will build wealth. I will also promise that it is totally up to you.” 

Daniel pointed out that this has not always been the prevailing attitude, and he led us through a short history of caring for and about the poor beginning with the birth of capitalist ideology during the 18th century.  Adam Smith (1723-1790, Wealth of Nations), an early promoter of freedom in the economic realm, believed that everyone would stand to benefit from free-market capitalism – including the very poor.  If this sounds a bit like Reagan’s “trickle-down economics,” listen to this difference:  

“Servants, labourers and workmen of different kinds, make up the far greater part of every great political society. But what improves the circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconvenience to the whole.  No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, cloath and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, cloathed and lodged.” 

Smith believed a “sufficient wage” was necessary to provide for the needs of workers from whose work all of society benefited.  Enlightenment philosopher Condorcet (1743-1794) talked about the universal human right to bien-etre – or well-being – and advocated for a system of “social insurance” to aid potentially poor families in times of crisis. Turgot (1727-1781), a French economist, suggested that work and consistent salaries should be provided by the government when necessary instead of forcing the impoverished to rely on (or hope for) charity. In short, many thinkers at this time understood that not everyone would be able to “build wealth” under the new capitalistic societies – and that some would actually lose it.  As Daniel puts it, these thinkers sought a middle ground between the “promotion of an ‘invisible free hand’ and a visible hand of philanthropy toward those on the socio-economic margins.”

Daniel described another line of thinking embraced by Montesquieu (1689-1755) whereby, as Montesquieu put it, “everyone contributes to the general welfare while thinking that he works for his own interest.” Montesquieu imagined a system of parties working for their own benefit but bound together in a web of dependence – a system he said that would lead to douceur, happiness (or “sweetness) for all, although others (like Jean-Baptiste Colbert, 1619-1683) saw this system leading to “perpetual combat.”

Montesquieu’s vision of economic freedom and the pursuit of self-interest gradually gained more followers, and over time the Elizabethan poor laws were slowly revoked.  Later thinkers saw the poverty as the result of waste or laziness and society as a whole better served by the poor being “severed from the social organism” (historian Jean-Christophe Agnew) – a foreshadowing of Social Darwinism. 

Daniel also described how the romanticism of this period produced literature that constructed a “factual fiction” that informed its readers not only of a particular story but also how to view the world.  Robinson Crusoe was the example he gave – a man washed up alone on an island, but due to his hard work and innovation was able to prosper magnificently.  Horatio Alger stories of the nineteenth century later told this same story of what would become known as the American Dream.  

He pointed out that it does not behoove the “haves,” those who benefit from free-market capitalism to even notice the “have-nots.”  The story doesn’t work as well when there is an “under-class” who can’t make it.  And noticing the problem – that some people suffer from the same system that enriches others – shines a harsh light on those who benefit. It’s much more comfortable to turn our heads or blame them for not trying hard enough. 

Daniel’s question to us was, “What do we do about it?”  Many of the participants shared their own experiences of being on one side or the other of this story – those of us who were born on third base but act like we hit a homerun, as well as those of us impoverished by our economic system.   Some pointed out that “laws” are not the only answer, that there must be a change of heart as well.  Several suggested that solutions might be found if more of those who have flourished under our system could get to know folks who have been impoverished by it.  Our culture of communities polarized by divisions between neighborhoods (or the side of town one lives on), racism, educational inequities, and fear doesn’t facilitate this.  But as people with a mandate to “love one another,” we need to experience the discomfort of facing our own roles in economic injustice.   


Posted on 10/30/2007, in ROUNDTABLE and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Wow, nice summary Kelli. I like how you worked in the paper too. I was really thankful for the opportunity to engage with everyone at the round table. It truly was a joy for me, and I hope to do it again. Thanks to everyone who participated and for all your thoughts; they were fantastic.

  2. It was really an extraordinary talk and discussion. Your invitation to us Daniel, to review historically, and see that even the most passionate of capitalist theorists from way back when (Adam Smith and company), never envisioned a system like we have now–a system that accepts and blesses the fact of the suffering of a great many the world over so that a few of us may live in such extravagance. It was a really powerful discussion too: Are folks just unaware or willfully ignorant? What can we do now? How has the extreme individualism of our country and the complete breakdown of communal bonds fed into this false ideology? Good stuff. Thanks Dan, thanks all 25 of you present for this too.

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