‘The countries appearing to be most impoverished are those which in reality account for the fewest indigents, and among the peoples most admired for their opulence, one part of the population is obliged to rely on gifts of the other in order to live.’
In particular in England, the richest society in Europe, ‘the Eden of modern civilisation’, ‘you will discover with indescribable astonishment that one-sixth of the inhabitants of this flourishing kingdom live at the expense of public charity’. In Portugal, in contrast with ‘an ignorant and coarse population; ill-fed, ill-clothed, living in the midst of a half-uncultivated counryside and in miserable dwellings…the number of indigents is insignificant’.
This is from Max Hartwell’s foreword to the Institute of Economic Affairs reprint of Memoir on Pauperism by Alexis de Tocqueville, written in 1835.
His comment is still very relevant today. Rich countries can afford welfare benefits which, unless they are very wisely framed, cause unintended consequences such as permanent mass unemployment which is a tragedy in itself and leads on to further tragedies. And so you get the paradox of lots of people living on welfare in rich countries and only a few in poor countries.
(An indigent is a destitute or needy person in archaic English.)
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- Why has the proportion of relatively poor increased?
- That old chestnut that the Tories shunted people onto Invalidity Benefit in the 1980s in order to keep down the unemployment figures
- BBC Radio 5 Live appearance