Political theory and the problem of American poverty
Vaughan, Sharon Kay
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This dissertation serves to expose ideas about poverty by systematically examining its treatment in foundational texts by some of the most significant theorists in Western philosophy. I explore the writings of Plato, Aristotle, John Locke, Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, G. W. F. Hegel, Karl Marx, John Rawls, and Robert Nozick in historical sequence. These philosophers made significant and provocative contributions toward understanding the problem of poverty. I uncover some major themes in these theorists’ work. First, all but one philosopher thinks it disastrous for a society to have large numbers of poor people living in a state. Mass poverty threatens everyone’s happiness in the state as well as its political stability. Second, some theorists have oversimplified the problem and possible solutions. These oversimplifications add to the confusion and controversy surrounding the problem of poverty. Third, discussions about government support for the poor dominate much of the writing about poverty. Ought governments give aid to the poor? How can one morally justify taking money from the wealthy to provide aid for the poor? Philosophical and historical explorations of these themes and questions reveal that these same problems have vexed philosophers and politicians from John Locke to contemporary authors like John Rawls. These ideas continue to be relevant today after hundreds and even thousands of years have passed.