EspañolPer Bylund, a libertarian thinker, recently tweeted: “What causes poverty? Nothing. It is the original state, the starting point. The real question is: What causes prosperity?” Bylund refers to the original state of humanity as a whole, and not to particular individuals.
During the Stone Age, for example, people at that time only had what nature could offer them: water, fruits, animals to hunt, stones to make fire, caves for shelter.
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Let us compare that scenario with today. Whoever is reading this column has a telephone or computer with which to read it, a house to sleep in, means of transportation to move about, medicines to cure sickness, clothes to dress themselves with. If we look a little further, we can see airplanes, drones, rockets, and smart buildings.
None of this came from a tree. Everything was created by individuals who realized that if they wanted to survive and have a good life, they had to think and act. And if, on the contrary, they stayed with their mind in a blank state, paralyzed, waiting to absorb life from the soil and the sun, they would die.
The creation of all wealth is based on thinking and acting; on the search to survive and live fully. Prosperity is not achieved by any defect or weakness, but thanks to the human virtues, and one of the noblest feelings: the love of life.
Does someone who thinks and acts have his life assured? No, not at all. He can both reason and act in the wrong way. He may lack key information to make a good decision. He may incorrectly evaluate this information.
He can offer on the market something that people do not want. He can take a false step. He can fail hundreds of times. Surviving is a challenge, and living fully is a phenomenal achievement.
But while thinking and acting do not necessarily ensure life or wealth, what is certain is that not thinking or acting do ensure poverty.
What better resource to stay poor or to return to poverty than not to think, and do nothing? I can assure you the best way to make sure not to eat, is to stare at the sky waiting for bread to fall from it.
Now, why would anyone decide not to think or act? Because doing so has a cost, it involves an effort, and some people prefer to wait for something magical to happen or someone else to take care of this hard task.
It is easier to wait for it to rain, than to look for water in the subsoil and figure out how to bring it to the surface. It is easier to ask a neighbor for a glass of milk, than milking a cow. It is easier to pray so that there is no lack of food, than to think about how to increase production.
There is also consciously chosen poverty. Why would anyone choose to be poor? Some believe that being poor is a virtue, or prefer to engage in an activity that offers personal satisfaction, but that is not enough to pay the bills. Others even donate their wealth for a cause that they consider more valuable.
Both poverty for vagrancy, and poverty for choice, are personal decisions that affect only the individual who chooses these paths. There is a third option, however, that is much more dangerous: poverty through coercion.
There is poverty through coercion when someone forces another person to remain poor or to be poor again, by taking away his freedom to produce wealth, or by appropriating from the latter after it is produced.
How can anyone take away my freedom or rob me the fruit of my effort? Only through the use of force. That is, at gunpoint. And who initiates force in a society? Criminals (illegally), and the government (legally).
An offender can abduct and steal, but only to some people throughout his life. Moreover, an offender faces the possible consequences of being sent to jail or dying if things do not go as planned. But only the government can violate the freedom and property of all people at the same time in a systematic, legal, and risk-free way.
Just take a look at the countries of the Americas where there is a greater proportion of poor people without the possibility of improving their situation. These nations have authoritarian governments that do not respect the right to freedom or property. Of course, Cuba and Venezuela lead this ranking.
On the contrary, the countries where these rights are respected have greater wealth and upward social mobility; and people have incentives to think, act, take risks, and persevere.
How to think and act, if we cannot do it freely? How to think and act, if any act of independence is considered as rebellion and therefore, punished?
What incentive can someone have to generate wealth if, as soon as he or she succeeds, the government takes it directly or through confiscatory taxes? Is it not preferable to be on the side of those who receive things for free, instead of continuing on the side of those who produce for the benefit of others?
The widespread poverty of a whole society and for a long period of time is only the fault of a government that imposes it. We can continue to blame Spanish colonialism or Yankee imperialism, but we will not be able to overcome poverty until we take the first step towards change: to recognize that the true enemy of progress is within ourselves.