There has been much discussion recently of the increased inequality of incomes observed in many countries of the world, especially the increased concentration of income in the upper one percent. I would like to remind readers of TdJ that the venerable Adam Smith (1723-1790) was not complacent regarding inequality of income and the persistence of poverty in his time. Here is a relevant extract from his 1776 publication, Wealth of Nations:
Servants, labourers and workmen of different kinds, make up the far greater part of every great political society. But what improves the circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconveniency to the whole. No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, cloath and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, cloathed and lodged. (book I, ch. 8, para.35; emphasis added)
Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, edited by Edwin Cannan (London: Methuen & Co., Ltd. 5th edition, 1904). Available from www.econlib.org/library/Smith/smWN.html
Smith was very enlightened for his day, carefully explaining the difference between relative and absolute poverty. The “necessaries of life”, he wrote, vary over time and across countries.
A linen shirt … is, strictly speaking, not a necessary of life. The Greeks and Romans lived, I suppose, very comfortably though they had no linen. But in the present times, through the greater part of Europe, a creditable day-labourer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt, the want of which would be supposed to denote that disgraceful degree of poverty which, it is presumed, nobody can well fall into without extreme bad conduct. Custom, in the same manner, has rendered leather shoes a necessary of life in England. The poorest creditable person of either sex would be ashamed to appear in public without them. In Scotland, custom has rendered them a necessary of life to the lowest order of men; but not to the same order of women, who may, without any discredit, walk about barefooted. In France they are necessaries neither to men nor to women, the lowest rank of both sexes appearing there publicly, without any discredit, sometimes in wooden shoes, and sometimes barefooted. (book V, ch. 2, para. 148; emphasis added)
In Smithian terms, we cannot claim that poverty no longer exists because everyone has access to television, telephones and other electronic devices which even the wealthiest could not obtain a century ago.