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Conor Bollins

Examining the decades before the 1790s uncovers key ‘Enlightened’ conversations that involved thinking anew about poverty that did not endure into the nineteenth century. As Conor Bollins shows, one important example here is the debate over ancient and modern demography. He investigates the mid-century activities of the Scottish minister and philosopher Robert Wallace (1697–1771), who developed a widow’s fund as a test policy for larger schemes of social insurance. Like many Enlightened thinkers, Wallace believed that modern Europe was experiencing depopulation and was facing the prospect of civilisational collapse. He attributed this to rising poverty. In response, Wallace developed both new theories and concrete solutions to create a more equitable distribution of land and resources, in the hope of encouraging families to grow. Demography emerges as a separate field of discourse to political economy in which issues of poverty were debated and the means for its amelioration or alleviation proposed. Moreover, Wallace was an innovative thinker working out schemes of social insurance, with some success, long before the radicalism of the 1790s.

in Ideas of poverty in the Age of Enlightenment
Ben Dew

One locus for new eighteenth-century ways of thinking about poverty was found in the ‘philosophical histories’ of the High Enlightenment. Ben Dew shows that much enlightened historical writing focused on charting socio-economic improvement in ways that implied trajectories of the ‘natural’ progress of society from poverty and savagery, via feudalism based on slavery, to commercial prosperity and civility. While the reduction of poverty was something achieved over the longué durée due to incremental economic improvement, it could be aided by reforming or abandoning the socio-economic structures and institutions of earlier forms of society. British travel writers reporting back on eighteenth-century Poland and Russia understood the level of poverty in those countries as analogous to that experienced in feudal Western Europe. Thinking about how Europe emerged out of serfdom and slavery informed discussion of how Eastern Europe could do the same. Moreover, accounts of serf-holding societies in Eastern Europe were utilised, in turn, by British critics of slavery and other exploitative aspects of Britain’s growing commercial empire. What is profoundly significant here is that changes in European understanding of the trajectory of history—the very notions of improvement over time—were necessary as a pre-condition to any conceptualisation of poverty as something subject to human control and potentially eradicable.

in Ideas of poverty in the Age of Enlightenment
Open Access (free)
Poverty and the Irish landscape, c. 1720–1820
James Stafford

James Stafford examines an ongoing conversation spanning the eighteenth into the nineteenth centuries, wherein competing visions of economic progress in Ireland gave rise to rival imaginaries of a well-ordered countryside. Following the dispossession of the Catholic aristocracy, the ‘new English’ ruling class rested their hopes of civilising the native population on encouraging a shift from grazing to tillage. The barbarous modes of life endemic to pasturage, it was thought, would give way to the industry, prosperity and passivity exemplified by the English peasantry. When the turn to tillage took off in the 1770s, however, it took a different path from that taken in England. The emergence of the so-called ‘cottier system’—whereby tenants rented cabins and a small plot of land to grow potatoes—was heralded by some commentators as a bright new dawn. For the potato provided a sure and nourishing subsistence, while rendering the labourer’s condition impervious to the price hikes that so often disturbed civil peace in the English countryside. Yet this ‘celebratory narrative’, too, came under attack at the beginning of the nineteenth century, as some critics pointed to its tendency to stifle enterprise by encouraging the labourer to be content with a bare subsistence and to encourage ‘surplus population’.

in Ideas of poverty in the Age of Enlightenment
Arnault Skornicki

The philosophes developed the concept of ‘bienfaisance’ from the 1760s in direct opposition to established theological notions of charity, a switch from Christian duty to secular humanitarian concern. As Arnault Skornicki’s chapter shows, the new Physiocratic system of political economy needed to develop concepts and arguments that explained how it served the poor better than traditional modes of relief. While there was disagreement amongst the Physiocrats on precise welfare policy recommendations, they shared the view that the most important expedient was to increase employment by creating a free market economy and, in particular, a perfectly free grain trade. This required modifying the language of ‘bienfaisance’ to communicate the altruistic intentions behind such ‘capitalistic’ solutions, partly to fend off allegations of hardheartedness when they criticised traditional almsgiving as encouraging beggary. A new political language was developed to support the Physiocrats’ arguments for removing controls and allowing the economy to return to its natural order and, with it, to aid the long-run well-being of the poor. This was a crucial moment in the history of Enlightenment ideas of poverty, as it represented one of the most significant systematic attempts to address the problem directly, rather than as a part of wider project to improve administration or increase national wealth.

in Ideas of poverty in the Age of Enlightenment
Open Access (free)
Poverty and charity in eighteenth-century Spain
Jesús Astigarraga
and
Javier Usoz

Jesus Astigarraga and Javier Usoz Otal assess the emergence of ‘economic regalism’ in mid-eighteenth-century Spain. This was a new ‘Enlightened’ approach to poverty developed by reforming civil servants. It rejected the Catholic Church’s control of poor relief and framed the issue of ameliorating poverty in the new language of political economy. Poverty was to be reconceived not in Christian terms, but as a problem resulting from a workforce characterised by idleness and limited skills, and a backward society of only limited economic development. Want could be ameliorated through industry, education and market-orientated policies. This secular language of economic reform in the interests of the poor and at the expense of the Church was initially developed by government ministers and state officials in support of absolutism. Ultimately, however, the new language of egalitarianism and ameliorating the condition of the least well-off served to undermine the legitimacy of ancien regime Spain and would go on to inform the construction of the fated liberal Constitution of 1812.

in Ideas of poverty in the Age of Enlightenment
Dutch decline, liberalism, patriotism and the duties of the state around 1800
Koen Stapelbroek

The Enlightened discourse on poverty in each national context shared much with the general conversation taking place across Europe. National socio-economic circumstances could, however, frame the timing of when and reasons why poverty became a significant concern. A good example of these processes is that of the Dutch Republic, as discussed in Koen Stapelbroeck’s chapter. Born out of its comparative wealth, a common myth in early eighteenth-century Europe was that poverty did not exist in the Republic. The emergence of poverty as an issue of economic and political debate occurred in tandem with attempts, especially in the 1770s and 1780s, to understand and stall Dutch economic decline. Two opposing discourses crystallised at this time, one which understood poverty as a mismatch of factors of production needing to be dealt with to ensure the State’s prosperity, and another which positioned poverty as an issue of moral economy, viewing it as a duty of the State to provide labour and subsistence for its citizenry. These positions provide through-lines to the rival positions of liberalism and socialism in the nineteenth century republic.

in Ideas of poverty in the Age of Enlightenment
An introduction
R. J. W. Mills
and
Niall O’Flaherty

The issue of poverty is rarely held to be a key concern of the European Enlightenment. Instead, the emergence of our modern notion of poverty is held to take place in the revolutionary 1790s. This introduction sets out the argument that this ignores the emergence of what Mark Ravallion has termed the ‘First Poverty Enlightenment’ from the 1740s onwards. The transformation of how poverty was conceptualised should be viewed as one of the key humanitarian goals of an Enlightenment concerned with temporal well-being. To this end, the introduction explains how the chapters that follow examine changing conceptualisations of the causes, character and consequences of poverty, as well as proposals for its amelioration. The collection seeks to provide the perspective of the intellectual historian on an issue that has long been the preserve of social historians (though surprisingly not economic historians), and to suggest that poverty was more central to Enlightenment-era thought than the current literature suggests. Our contributors have sought to situate conceptualisations of poverty within their original social, political and philosophical contexts, and to view those conceptualisations as contributions to pan-European debates over the paths to prosperity and improvement. Through reconstructing the major themes of Enlightenment-era thought about poverty, the following chapters avoid viewing these debates in terms of early twenty-first century concepts and categories. Equally importantly, our contributors have been encouraged to explore how changing notions of poverty inform political and social action and thereby demonstrate the crucial interplay between Enlightened ideas and political practices.

in Ideas of poverty in the Age of Enlightenment

Although poverty in the eighteenth century has long been an object of focus for social historians, it has figured only marginally in the intellectual history of the period. This is because it has been assumed that the existence of poverty was rarely problematised before the transformative decade of the 1790s. Yet because the theme of poverty played important roles in many critical issues in European history, it was central to some of the key debates in Enlightenment political thought throughout the period, including the controversies about sovereignty and representation, public and private charity, as well as questions relating to crime and punishment. Indeed, leading thinkers like the Scottish political economist Adam Smith, the French Physiocrats and the Milanese jurist Cesare Beccaria had come to see the fate of the poor as an urgent political question in the middle decades of the century. This book examines some of the most important contributions to these debates, while also ranging beyond the canonical Enlightenment thinkers, to investigate how poverty was conceptualised in the wider intellectual culture, as politicians, administrators and pamphlet writers grappled with the issue. The volume also revisits the question of why and how many governments and men of letters began to address poverty as a social problem in the 1790s. It asks how far the drive to reduce or eliminate want was already underway before the French Revolution, as well as challenging the binary characterisation of debates in the period as a struggle between humanitarian radicals and cold-hearted reactionaries.

An eighteenth-century debate
Anna Plassart

This chapter raises questions about the widespread view that the 1790s were the radical turning point when our modern concept of poverty emerged. Anna Plassart places Edmund Burke’s famous mockery of the notion of the ‘labouring poor’ as ‘political canting language’ in the context not of the French Revolution, but of an ongoing eighteenth-century debate among enlightened social theorists about the character of poverty in modern commercial states. Burke’s indictment did not symbolise the end of paternalism and the beginning of free market liberalism. Certainly, it was a rhetorical move in response to radicalism in 1795. But he was also participating in an ongoing conversation about the concept of the ‘labouring poor’. To Burke, there were only the ‘idle’ poor: the purported ‘labouring poor’ were the expected productions of economic laws and their situation was unalterable. The framing of the labouring poor as an oxymoron was deployed by Burke, Frederick Eden, Patrick Colquohoun and Jeremy Bentham, but they were all, directly or indirectly, relying on the formulation found half a century earlier in Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws (1748). Through identifying the Montesquieuian origins of this critique, Plassart encourages us to think beyond the stark or binary analyses of the radical 1790s and to assess the changing status of long-established arguments.

in Ideas of poverty in the Age of Enlightenment
Open Access (free)
The early reception of Malthus
Niall O’Flaherty

Efforts of recent scholarship to discredit the widespread view of T. R. Malthus as helping to instigate a shift from a generous paternalistic view of poverty relief to an amoral cost–benefit credo have been undermined by the contention that the cure for poverty set out in the second edition of his Essay on the Principle of Population (1803) was invariably either misconstrued or ignored altogether, and that it failed, therefore, to dislodge the gloomier outlook of the first edition of 1798 in the public imagination. Niall O’Flaherty shows, however, that the optimistic message of the second edition was both well understood and celebrated in the decade after its publication, not only by its numerous reviewers but also by those at the forefront of the campaign to reform the English relief system in parliament. There was a foundation, in other words, for a new approach to poverty that was at once anti-paternalist and humanitarian.

in Ideas of poverty in the Age of Enlightenment