The care therefore of every man’s soul belongs unto himself, and is to be left unto himself. But what if he neglect the care of his soul? I answer, what if he neglects the care of his health, or of his estate, which things are nearer related to the government of the magistrate than the other? Will the magistrate provide by an express law, that such a one shall not become poor or sick? Laws provide, as much as is possible, that the goods and health of subjects be not injured by the fraud and violence of others; they do not guard them from the negligence or ill-husbandry of the possessors themselves.

—John Locke. A letter concerning toleration, 1689.

The government must concern itself with the poor only when they are harming others, for example, when they are using crime to support themselves or neglecting their children.

The government remit is to stamp out behavior by poor people that infringes the rights of others, never to ‘stamp out poverty.’ The quest to stamp out poverty is in any event a fool’s quest—like trying to reach the end of a rainbow. Countries that have tried the hardest to stamp out poverty—such as the Soviet Union—have succeeded only in impoverishing their entire population. This is because relative poverty is a vital component of human society. The fear of poverty is what causes billions of people to set their alarm clocks for 5:00 am; it is why the customer is always right; it is why Daddy is gone before the children have their breakfast; it is why people work hard to establish businesses and get pay raises. Fear of poverty is the modern equivalent of hunger—it is what drives us.

This article is an extract from the book ‘Principles of Good Government’ by Matthew Bransgrove