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Every so often a politician or philanthropist is heard expounding on the acute need to eradicate poverty, most often citing income figures for some tribesman or a villager forced to subsist on mere pennies. However, even leaving aside the blatantly nonsensical comparison of wealth measures for subsistence farmers in terms of a means of exchange of a fully developed society, and not to mention the fact that wealth and poverty are concepts only meaningful relative to one another — imagine for example, say, an emperor of Rome or Byzantium unable, for all his wealth, to find a decent dentist — it ignores a fundamental fact about the nature of wealth and poverty per se.

In fact, to understand the matter better, it behooves us to recall that poverty, as we most commonly perceive it, has been the natural condition of the bulk of humanity for as long as it has existed: what sort of wealth can we ascribe, for instance, to a paleolithic hunter-gatherer hard at work to find enough to eat each day? It is, in fact, possessing wealth that is the great exception to the rule — always arising as a result of a unique conjunction of access to resources, ability, effort, and — to no small extent — of luck.

It is for this reason that aid programs to poor countries have always failed in much the same way: wealth is captured by well-placed elites, while the great bulk of the poor is at best no better off, and more frequently than not is made poorer still. The perpetual surprise at the continual failure of all efforts to institutionalize wealth transfers as a means of poverty relief is rather puzzling to those of us who seek to profit by experience.

The big question of why the West broke out of the trap of poverty, even if this condition were to last, for a large proportion of its people is one that our politically correct age prefers to leave unanswered. Instead, we try to squeeze out all we can from those members of society who have achieved a measure of affluence, whether or not it was by luck or their own efforts, not stopping even at taxing their income twice or more, forgetting always that when the cow is slaughtered the milk stops flowing.

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