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Gareth Stedman Jones and Jeffrey Sachs on Poverty

On Wednesday, Nov. 9, two of the most influential names in development economics -- Jeffrey Sachs, and Gareth Stedman Jones -- discussed their ideas on ending poverty at a Heyman Center event.

These two analysts share a similar optimism in man's ability to eradicate poverty in the 21 st century. The differences lie in their approach to the issue and their prescriptions for how this can be achieved.

Stedman Jones, professor of political science and the director of the Centre for History and Economics at Cambridge University, links man's potential for ending poverty to his philosophical ability to establish a "right to relief." Prior to the French Revolution, European societies accepted their responsibility to care for the poor. The concept, known as noblesse oblige, eventually extended to all members of society.

But according to Stedman Jones, this fundamental "right" got lost in the traumatic aftermath of the French Revolution and in the fears aroused by an increasingly global economy.

The 1790s were an exciting time when reformers proposed, for the first time, bringing an end to poverty. Enlightenment thinkers like Thomas Paine and Antoine-Nicolas Condorcet believed that republicanism combined with universal pensions, grants to support education, and other social programs could protect all members of society against the hazards of economic insecurity. In tracing the inspiration for these reformers' beliefs, Stedman Jones locates an unlikely source -- Adam Smith. Smith's vision of a dynamic commercial society appealed to these thinkers, Stedman Jones explains, because they thought it laid the groundwork for creating economic security and a more egalitarian society.

Christian and conservative thinkers such as Edmund Burke and Thomas Malthus, however, used Smith's ideas to postulate a vision of society based on individualism and laissez-faire economics. These conservatives demonized Paine and Condorcet as being too utopian (later, with the rise of anticapitalism, they were seen as being too bourgeois).

But in the view of Stedman Jones, the world missed its chance by failing to recognize the potential in the ideas presented by Paine and Condorcet. If we are serious about ending poverty now, we should return to the values of the early Enlightenment and strive to fulfill the vision it offered of universal education and social security -- or, as he puts it, "a true republic, a regime working for the common welfare, a living product of the Enlightenment values of empathy, universalism and reason."

Whereas Stedman Jones is focused on the historical debate surrounding appropriate governmental and social responses to poverty, Sachs sees poverty as a direct consequence of certain "physical realities" -- most prominently, environmental circumstances, which in Sachs' view, play an enormous role in determining the world's haves and have-nots.

He notes that "the poorest in the world tend to live in marginal environments . . . places vulnerable to drought, disease and disasters." Poverty-stricken areas also tend to be located far from trade routes and markets, he observes.

Like Stedman Jones, Sachs is optimistic and embraces an Enlightenment view that "the progress of the mind can eradicate poverty"; but he puts the emphasis in a different place -- on the importance of science and technology in closing the gap between the haves and have-nots.

Observing that we now possess the technology to overcome the physical obstacles to ending poverty, Sachs says that we are neglecting our potential in failing to put that technology to use. For example, many of the diseases plaguing the developing world can be treated with drugs developed in the West, but the patents on these drugs make them scarce and expensive.

Only Stedman Jones ends his book title with a question mark; yet Sachs, too, raises questions about the ability of modern society to overcome its shortcomings -- in particular greed and corruption -- to alleviate poverty. The difference is that Sachs argues that it has never been more possible to achieve freedom from want, while Stedman Jones keeps pointing out that we've been there before -- and it's important to do better this time around.

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Published: Nov 30, 2005
Last modified: Nov 29, 2005

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