In the present instance, going back to the liver-pill circular, I had the symptoms, beyond all mistake, the chief among them being "a general disinclination to work of any kind." What I suffer in that way no tongue can tell. From my earliest infancy I have been a martyr to it. As a boy, the disease hardly ever left me for a day.
— Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat
I know I am posting too many things at one time, but this bit that I have just read is too brilliant to pass by. The Conservatives and Classical Liberals are oftentimes accused of being heartless pigs who do not care for the poor. Figures are oftentimes cited to reveal the levels of unemployment and poverty. And the solution is more free soup, more governmental charities.
In his book, The Worldy Philosophers (hardly a work of libertarian economic philosophy), Robert L. Heilbroner writes (p. 24 in the 7th ed.):
Sir William Petty, an astonishing seventeenth-century character (who was in his lifetime cabin boy, hawker, clothier, physician, professor of music, and founder of a school named Political Arithmetik), claimed that when wages were good, labor was “scarce to be had at all, so licentious are they who labor only to eat, or rather to drink”. And Sir William was not merely venting the bourgeois prejudices of his day. He was observing a fact that can still be remarked among the unindustrialized peoples of the world: a raw working force, unused to wagework, uncomfortable in factory life, unschooled to the idea of an ever-rising standard of living, will not work harder if wages rise; it will simply take more time off.Now, I must point out, from my experience of having lived in New Orleans for four years, that the attitude described in the first paragraph of the quote is not unique to the “unindustrialized people of the world” — it is prevalent among many sub-cultures of American society as well.
The idea of gain, the idea that each working person not only may, but should, constantly strive to better his or her material lot, is an idea that was quite foreign to the great lower and middle strata of Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and medieval cultures, only scattered throughout Renaissance and Reformation times and largely absent in the majority of Eastern civilizations. As a ubiquitous characteristic of society, it is as modern an invention as printing.
Not only is the idea of gain by no means as universal as we sometimes suppose, but the social sanction of gain is an even more modern and restricted development. In the Middle Ages, the Church taught that no Christian ought to be a merchant [good news for the Jews, eh?], and behind that teaching lay the thoughts that merchants were a disturbing yeast in the leaven of society. In Shakespeare’s time the object of life for the ordinary citizen, for everybody, in fact, except the gentility, was not to advance his station in life, but to maintain it. Even to our Pilgrim forefathers, the idea that gain might be tolerable — even a useful — goal in life would have appeared as nothing short of a doctrine of the devil.
I know a Jew from Manhattan who was in real estate business in New Orleans. He would buy apartment buildings and renovate them to rent out. He employed one man who, according to my friend, was a very talented craftsman. Gaining his services, however, was very difficult. First, to find him, one had to cross a bayou on a boat. Second, even if found, the guy was most of the times in a state of intoxication from various substances. Third, even if employed, he more often than not would not show up to work.
Now, if one personally wishes to stay poor, that’s his business (and there is a difference between “advancing one’s station in life” to the point of being able to buy a yacht vs. to the point of being able to buy two pairs of tefillin for each son and send all children to good schools, and maybe buy some Jewish books and invite a few guests for Shabbos). But if he wishes to help other poor people, he must encourage them to help themselves and provide them with economic means to do so, not encourage the government to hand out free soup to keep the poor barely alive.