Saturday, February 13, 2010

Poverty of Liberty

I was considering the best way to define poverty, and I think I may have stumbled across a very old idea that might fit the bill:

“ …all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Perhaps “poverty” is when you lack life, liberty or the ability to pursue happiness?
Poverty can certainly limit these human rights. Life can be limited by starvation the same as it can be provided by an invading nation or a murderer. The government has a commission to prevent the violation of the right in the case of the latter, but which it is the job of the government to prevent.

The lack of liberty can come in many forms. It may not just be liberty in the sense of suffrage, but also in terms of education and beliefs about your own capacity. A slave working on a plantation certainly lacks liberty, but so does a factory worker who cannot leave his situation or promise a better one to his children. Likewise, a person with the ability to better his situation may have been convinced that he is unable, and perception becomes reality.

Limitations of liberty
If a person wants to run a marathon, three things can limit her. The first and most obvious is physical ability; can the person’s legs last for 26.2 miles? Secondly, does a physically capable person believe she can run the distance? And finally, is she willing to do it? She needs physical ability, belief in her ability, and wiliness to actually run. If any one of these things is lacking, she will not be able to complete a marathon. Her freedom is to run a marathon is limited by her body, her mind and her spirit.

The same is true of a poor person. A person may not have liberty or the ability to pursue happiness because they are physically unable (they lack the food to survive), mentally unable (they do not know or believe they can advance), or spiritually unable (they are unwilling to better their situation). To truly have liberty, all three kinds of barriers must be removed.
Most poverty work centers around the first one. We boost income, and build clinics. Most people believe that’s all there is to poverty. But, if liberty is the concern, then simply addressing physical barriers is insufficient.

There are many places with an overbuilt medical infrastructure; physical barriers are reduced. But the buildings remain empty. Mothers still birth their children at home and rarely use the clinic. In many of these places, they know that they’re supposed to give birth in a hospital and that it’s safer. But they prefer their homes. They have every physical and mental barrier removed; some simply lack the willingness.

Mental barriers are also sometimes addressed in development work. And even those who do trainings to address mental shortcomings will not be fully successful if they stop simply at information transfer.

Do we stop because it’s hard? Or because we’d have to address a culture and a preference (both of which are off-limits to relativists)? Changing minds like this is really really hard. But it’s what pastors, motivational speakers and advertising executives make a living doing: affecting people’s willingness to do things. Some of their job is removing physical or mental barriers; but most of it is giving people a spirit or desire to do a certain thing. And we cannot forget this very important piece of liberty.

Pursuit of Happiness
The ability to pursue happiness is a beautiful thing. It is not a guarantee of happiness itself. It is not the ability to hold property (Locke’s version). It is the abstract idea that one can seek happiness in whatever way one wants. Nobody can provide or force someone to be happy; the farthest one can go is to give another the ability to pursue happiness. This is a particularly hard place to stop, but a critical one. We can give liberty and freedom, but we cannot in the next moment take it away to force what we think will bring happiness. Happiness cannot be coerced. People must be truly free to choose misery, and we must not stop them, for to do so would be to undermine liberty and subverting the deeper happiness it brings.

We can build clinics, teach mothers about them, and advertise them. We can work with chiefs and elders to open their minds to the benefits of clinic birth. We can remove economic, social, and cultural barriers. But if a woman still chooses to give birth at home, we must let her.

Freedom and Its Spread
Freedom is not just government type; it’s not just being able to vote. It’s the ability to make choices and to live a full life. It’s climbing upward and giving your children a better situation you had. There are still billions lacking the promise our Founding Fathers sought to give to us.
But how does the flame of freedom spread beyond the shores of the United States? It’s no longer as simple as throwing off a single oppressive king with an eloquent letter. The oppressors are more than political, and so the solutions must be also; the answer is no longer simply in government or a good constitution.

The poor need a Declaration of Independence. They wouldn’t be throwing off an oppressive government, but an oppressive system. Parts of that system are sentient and malicious (dictators, oppressive companies) and parts of it are non-sentient (viruses, climate). And just as the Declaration of Independence wasn’t itself a new system, it made it clear that one would soon be necessary. The War of Independence that must inevitably follow will be fought on the soil of many foreign nations.

I pray that I may fight as their ally.

The Challenge of Liberty Poverty
The challenge with this definition is that it is the most difficult to quantify. It is the most abstract (which, if you believe Plato, means it’s potentially closer to truth than the less abstract ones). Donors don’t want abstract concepts. They, increasingly, want numbers. But this can be our ideal, the thing we really have in mind when we enter a community and want to help. It’s not about money, or property, or even improving conditions. It’s about Liberty.

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