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An End to Poverty?: A Historical Debate

An End to Poverty?: A Historical Debate

by Gareth Stedman Jones

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In the 1790s, for the first time, reformers proposed bringing poverty to an end. Inspired by scientific progress, the promise of an international economy, and the revolutions in France and the United States, political thinkers such as Thomas Paine and Antoine-Nicolas Condorcet argued that all citizens could be protected against the hazards of economic insecurity.


In the 1790s, for the first time, reformers proposed bringing poverty to an end. Inspired by scientific progress, the promise of an international economy, and the revolutions in France and the United States, political thinkers such as Thomas Paine and Antoine-Nicolas Condorcet argued that all citizens could be protected against the hazards of economic insecurity. In An End to Poverty? Gareth Stedman Jones revisits this founding moment in the history of social democracy and examines how it was derailed by conservative as well as leftist thinkers. By tracing the historical evolution of debates concerning poverty, Stedman Jones revives an important, but forgotten strain of progressive thought. He also demonstrates that current discussions about economic issues -- downsizing, globalization, and financial regulation -- were shaped by the ideological conflicts of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Paine and Condorcet believed that republicanism combined with universal pensions, grants to support education, and other social programs could alleviate poverty. In tracing the inspiration for their beliefs, Stedman Jones locates an unlikely source-Adam Smith. Paine and Condorcet believed that Smith's vision of a dynamic commercial society laid the groundwork for creating economic security and a more equal society.

But these early visions of social democracy were deemed too threatening to a Europe still reeling from the traumatic aftermath of the French Revolution and increasingly anxious about a changing global economy. Paine and Condorcet were demonized by Christian and conservative thinkers such as Burke and Malthus, who used Smith's ideas to support a harsher vision of society based on individualism and laissez-faire economics. Meanwhile, as the nineteenth century wore on, thinkers on the left developed more firmly anticapitalist views and criticized Paine and Condorcet for being too "bourgeois" in their thinking. Stedman Jones however, argues that contemporary social democracy should take up the mantle of these earlier thinkers, and he suggests that the elimination of poverty need not be a utopian dream but may once again be profitably made the subject of practical, political, and social-policy debates.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Whether poverty is a social ill, an individual failing or an unavoidable byproduct of economic progress is a still-roiling controversy. This engaging study examines the unfolding of the debate in Europe from the late 18th century to the beginning of WWI. Cambridge University political scientist Jones grounds his treatment in the ideas of Adam Smith, whom he wishes to reclaim from free-market fundamentalists. Influenced by Smith's writings and emboldened by the French Revolution, Jones contends, visionaries Thomas Paine and Antoine-Nicolas de Condorcet offered groundbreaking proposals for universal social insurance and public education that they felt would eradicate poverty and strengthen the equality and personal independence Smith's free, commercial society demanded. Reactionary opponents of social equality and liberal enthusiasts of industrial capitalism invoked Smith against such proposals, Jones observes. Malthusian theorists, for instance, argued that social insurance encouraged improvidence and overbreeding among the poor, and laissez-faire economists objected to efforts to shield workers from competition and mechanization as obstacles to progress and prosperity. In reconstructing this debate, the author hopes to furnish a respectable non-Marxist rationale for modern social democracy. Whether or not the hitherto obscure Paine/Condorcet tendency inspires present-day social democrats, Jones offers a lucid, erudite exploration of a fertile topic in European intellectual history. (Nov.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Up-close examination of how Adam Smith and industrial advancement sparked furious debates on the future of the impoverished. Jones (History/Cambridge Univ.) examines the rise of political economy in England and France after the French Revolution, seeing in early responses to Smith's writings several unacknowledged precursors of socialism. During the early Industrial Era, many thinkers felt poverty could be eased by technology, were it not for the intractable attitudes of the aristocracy and the notorious Tudor-era Poor Laws, which penalized debtors. The French Revolution's reverberations led Condorcet and Thomas Paine to call for "socializing" the poor through public subsidy. The response in Britain towards such proposals was severe and, Jones argues, concealed attacks on Smith's reimagining of labor as a valued commodity. This backlash was epitomized by Malthus' Essay on the Principle of Population, loosely interpreted ever since to support various repressive ideologies. As for the French, their early proto-welfare experiment was ultimately destroyed by "Jacobin megalomania." Jones also explores how the accelerating Industrial Revolution affected the lives of the poor. In Britain, "interest in the possibilities of machinery was overshadowed by Malthusian anxieties about population increase and Ricardian fears about diminishing returns." As the so-called "entrepreneur class" developed, technology actually widened the "moral and economic breach" between them and the unskilled poor; the ghost of this division seems perceptible in today's backlash politics. By the mid-1800s, liberals and reactionaries alike concluded that, far from ending poverty, industry and the free market would hobblethe "industriousness and frugality" that European observers had admired in the United States. Ultimately, Jones asserts, "it was not Smith but the conservative reaction of the 1790s which produced the divorce between political economy and progressive politics."Enthusiastically argued, but so intertwined with original sources and rhetorical mannerisms that it's not terribly accessible.
The Independent - Stephen Howe
An End to Poverty?... offers an excitingly redrawn map of intellectual history. It also makes a powerful case about our political present and future.

The End of Poverty - Jeffrey Sachs
[An End to Poverty? is] a marvelous intellectual history of the debate over ending poverty, especially during the Enlightenment era of the 1790s.

History Today
[Stedman Jones] produces an argument that is not only powerful in its own right but should act as an inspiration and provocation to others.

The Times Literary Supplement - Stein Ringen
Jones enables us to understand that... the Enlightenment produced one of the truly radical inventions in the history of human thought.

Journal of Interdisciplinary History - Peter Jelavich
[A] well-written and intelligent book.

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Columbia University Press
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What People are Saying About This

Ira Katznelson
An End to Poverty? is an excellent work. It combines rich and original intellectual history with a suggestive re-reading of political thought concerned with social policy. In so doing, this elegantly written book provides an alternative lineage for the left that dates to well before the writings of Marx or the policy proposals of twentieth-century social democrats.

Meet the Author

Gareth Stedman Jones is professor of political science at Cambridge University, a fellow of King's College, and director of the Centre for History and Economics. His works include Outcast London (1971), Languages of Class (1983), and Charles Fourier, The Theory of the Four Movements (1996).

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