Sense and Nonsense: War and Poverty

Glancing through some current newspapers stacked haphazardly on a grand piano where I am currently living in San Francisco, I came across an article by a fellow clergyman in The Voice, from nearby Oakland (Feb. 27, 1984), which featured the following observation in boldface on page three: “The well-documented facts are that defense spending is crippling the global economy.” On reading this, I muttered to myself: “Well-Documented Propaganda!” Why “propaganda” and not “facts” is worth some consideration, I think.

The implication of the boldface statement, of course, was that poverty is caused by arms-spending, that if only swords are melted into ploughshares, there will be no poverty. My own suspicions, which I want to spell out here, are that poverty and swords are not particularly related or, if they are, that the most probable relationship between them is that the knowledge of how to make swords will likewise suggest ways to create wealth and vice versa. There will not likely be one without the other, or at least not for long. The only peoples who have vast wealth without the swords, say the Japanese, depend upon someone else’s arms, while the Japanese have already proved that they know quite well how to make the swords. But without someone else’s arms to allow them to act prosperously, there would be no Japanese wealth. Nor would there be any if the Japanese did not learn how to produce wealth in the first place and expend the energies to do so.

Interestingly, Alexander Solzhenitsyn recently advised the Japanese that since they could no longer rely upon their allies, they would have to prepare to defend themselves and look for more reliable comrades elsewhere, precisely among those who actually know what it means to have no arms.

A quick survey of the western world reveals that Japan does not have any absolutely trustworthy allies. But that does not mean it has none anywhere in the world. On the contrary, there are a great multitude of such allies; there are more of them, in fact, than of anyone else. They are the peoples oppressed by communism on four continents. (Address in National Review, Dec. 9, 1983).

This might suggest that the relation between arms and wealth may be more negative than we might be willing to acknowledge, namely, that arms can be used in the name of those ideologies which prevent others from becoming wealthy, something Solzhenitsyn also noted to be the case in his other addresses, the energies of those systems that produce wealth among individuals and the energies of those powers which use coercion to keep control over the unwilling poor flow in drastically different directions.

So though I realize that this connection between the sword and poverty is a very popular doctrine, bearing many hidden assumptions, one in some fashion or another repeated by almost every political and religious leader of good (or bad) will in the world, still let me affirm that these remarks do not arise out of an unconcern for the plight of the poor, however this poverty be calculated. Rather they stem from a much deeper respect for the poor than that which often seems manifest in the swords-ploughshares problematic. To put it bluntly, if we spend our time pursuing the notion that arms cause poverty, we will, in all likelihood, end up promoting this very poverty we are concerned to alleviate. We will prevent there being any space in which wealth can be produced in freedom, which is, after all, wealth’s final purpose, freedom in truth.

Often too, we hear it claimed that the poor of the world prefer to live in a “well-fed” tyranny than in a constrained liberty. Since there is considerable evidence that the poor vote with their feet whenever they can escape from a well-fed tyranny, I think this notion is something of an insult to the intelligence of the poor. The poor essentially want not the artificial sympathy of those who “identify” with their lot, yet who have not a clue about how to improve it. Rather, they seek the guidance of the rich, the instructions of those who know how to be richer. This latter endeavor is in no way helped by the famous “exploitation” thesis, which would argue that the reason the poor are poor is because the rich are rich. The rich are rich rather because they know how to be productive, because they have the discipline, values, energies, opportunities, talents, and desires to be something other than poor. This is the real service those religions and philosophies, which know about the world, can perform for the poor. The last thing the poor need is a religion or an ethic that suggests to them that their poverty is due to the limitation of world resources, or to the moral failure of others. Keeping the poor poor is, as Solzhenitsyn again has often noted, the deliberate effort of those tyrannies which claim that poverty arises from the exploitation of man by man. Wealth is, for the most part, created, not taken away.

Poverty, of course, does not normally “arise”. It is what is originally there. What is not poverty is what must arise. The great compliment that the Creator gave to man was that of not informing him about how to do everything. Wealth is something that will be there if he learns how to create and distribute it. If he cannot or will not learn this, he will remain poor. Wealth creation is not merely a question of good luck or fortune, though these things also exist in this universe, but largely a question of discovering, risking, learning, trying, discarding, tinkering, and directing one’s energies in a definite way that, as the saying goes, “works.” If anyone for personal or unwilling to learn such things, themselves learned and passed on by some of our predecessors and contemporaries to us, then the only way he will become rich is to contrive to take it from those who have learned how not to be poor. The same capacities that can produce weapons can produce all sorts of wealth, so that to deny ourselves the capacity to make our weapons its tantamount to choosing permanent poverty, while leaving ourselves open to those who have a theory of wealth-getting based on taking it, not earning it, with sufficient weaponry and strong enough wills to carry their theories out.

Let me propose then, what I take to be the truth, that poverty is not ’caused’ by arms, so that even if we should somehow solve the war problem, we will not ipso facto solve the poverty problem. The world is not a sort of narrowly limited pot from which if you have something it must mean that you had to take it from someone else. Poverty, moreover, has never been considered the ultimate in moral evil. Indeed, most religious traditions seem to have held that the poor were far nearer to God than the rich. This did not mean, however, that religion should exert all its energies to prevent men from becoming richer, however much it should exert its energies to teach the poor that their particular human lives are worthy even if they have little or nothing. Conversely, the occasions and opportunities for war might well be greater as people become richer, so that to advocate that the poor be guided to become richer would at the same time be in practice a multiplication of the occasions of war.

Aristotle sensed something of this, I think, in his remarks on the theory, that the reason we have strife and dissentions in the world is due to the distribution of property, that if only we would have some sort of communal ownership, we would solve all our problems. Aristotle observed:

Such legislation (for common property) may have a specious appearance of benevolence; men readily listen to it, and are easily induced to believe that in some wonderful manner everybody will become everybody’s friend, especially in states, suits about contracts, convictions for perjury, flatteries of rich men and the like, which are said to arise out of the possession of private property. This evils, however, are due to a very different cause — the wickedness of human nature.

My suspicions are, in other words, that the attribution of war to problems of property arrangement, usually related in the rhetoric of this subject, would deflect men and societies from a serious consideration of what might in fact be at the bottom of their problems.

Moreover, we forget the “positive” side of arms, as it were, namely, their function in allowing a civil space, an area with frontiers or boundaries in which we might learn to pursue what is a suitable life for some of mankind, even if others will not or cannot. Our ability to recognize that not every societal system works for freedom or wealth production assumes that we must live in a world that is quite imperfect in many ways. In it, men disagree on what is important in the most radical way. Too zealous a pursuit of arms as the enemy of mankind easily results in opening mankind to its worst enemies, who are usually unlikely to be worried about poverty except as a means of civil control. Adequate and sufficient arms, then, may in this sense be the reason why we can have an economy at all in which we can learn how to make men wealthier.

No doubt, it would be silly to maintain that there is no illegitimate use of arms or that the sole reason why people are not better off is their failure to learn how to be rich. Aristotle’s remark about human wickedness is enough to make us wary of this position. On the other hand, the world is not a sparse place. Indeed, the real temptation of the modern intellectual seems to be an unwillingness to believe and learn about how much has been given to us when we are given our intelligence and our hands as the primary resources and tools in their universe.

From this point of view, then, we can take another look at the arms and poverty issue. We can suggest that the real cause of why the poor are not better off is moral and religious. Perhaps by constantly suggesting that poverty is caused by structure and not something internal in the order of spirit, we prevent the poor from being anything else but poor. For when all is said and done, envy and greed do exist among us, both if we are rich and if we are poor and if we are anything in between. One of the great slanders against the poor is that they have no vices, that they are not like the rest of us because they are poor. The case that can be made for sympathy for the poor, then, ought not to be based on a theory of exploitation or societal arrangement that in essence denies that the poor have any value or dignity or freedom of their own.

In the end, I would maintain that the primary reason the poor remain poor is because of the theories which so often their political leaders and distant sympathizers have chosen in order to explain to them their poverty. The surest guarantee that the poor will remain poor and without freedom is the theory that says that wealth is taken and not created, a thesis that appears in a variety of guises among us. If we fail to understand why we have arms and how this is, at its best, related to helping, not hindering the poor because the knowledge of wealth-production is a product of freedom, we will end up preventing a further growth in wealth, which is alone the great hope of the poor who want, by their own energies and efforts, to become not poor, without denying that some will feel deprived even in the wealthiest of societies.

No doubt, it can be said of all arms that they are wasted. It is a commonplace to say that the best weapon is the one that was never used. From this we are tempted to conclude that the original weapon therefore ought not to have existed in the first place. But this is to forget Aristotle and the fact that many of the things that are wrong (though not all) can be prevented. Once we understand this, then we can say that weapons are indeed useless and prevent a better development of world resources and energies. In saying this, however, we mean to imply that the human condition ought in some sense to be other than it is. But this proposed otherness can be healthy only so long as we do not lapse into a kind of utopianism which, when it speaks of arms and poverty, adamantly believes that the realities of wickedness and greed can be easily eliminated by some ideological formula or deft political move.

When we sense, therefore, that men and societies, with this latter sort of ideology operative in the back of their minds, begin to take up arms or increase the ones they already have, then, if we believe in our freedom and dignity, we have no other choice but the courage to say effectively that these destructive views shall not prevail within our boundaries or in those of allies who understand the world in the way in which we do. Such arms might indeed be a “waste,” but, if we be free human beings, no amount of wealth, even if, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, it could be produced in such a system, could ever compensate for our inability to be free and to speak the truth.

What seems clear, finally, is that the poor understand this, that their ability to become something other than poor is directly related to the existence of spaces in this world in which men can freely act. This does not mean, to be sure, that free men and women will generously act, but this too needs some teaching, some discipline, some space in which such notions as generosity and charity can achieve normal existence. Of war and poverty, then, much perhaps remains to be said, but this at least seems to be a beginning. Some “facts” can, indeed, be used for “propaganda.” Arms in some sense exist in order that there be at least some regimes in which the latter be not identified with the former.

  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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