Since the dawn of history, most people have had to scramble for their next meal. This is odd, because the population of the world didn't reach 1 billion people until 1804. Obviously, the planet could provide more than enough to make everyone wealthy. What it didn't have, however, was enough people. They were too remote from each other to share ideas, divide labor, and make life easier for themselves.
The world population will reach 7 billion in 2012. As the population exploded over the past century, experts and authorities have warned of diminishing resources. I don't believe them, but will concede the point for the sake of argument. It stands to reason that when resources diminish to the point where there isn't enough to go around, there will be massive poverty.
So most of the time humanity suffered for lack of people. Soon, if not already, it will be suffering for lack of resources. Logically, there must have been a time when population and resources were in perfect balance and there was no poverty.
But we know this was not the case. There has always been scarcity and massive global poverty. For most of history, there was scarcity of land because rulers and armies would conquer lands and appoint nobles to govern them - in effect forcing the individuals who actually lived and worked on the land to pay rent on their lives. These rulers also diverted large amounts of wealth and men for warfare, creating more scarcity.
In addition, and more commonplace today, governments would regulate and monopolize money for their own benefit. The government would create legal tender laws mandating that its own currency be accepted, which drives out competing forms of currency. Then it would inflate the money supply by diminishing its precious metal content or by printing more paper bills, which in turn creates a boom-and-bust cycle that deepens poverty for many and inflicts great stress on most others.
It is true that genuine scarcity can exist in some regions afflicted by drought or other natural disaster. Scarcity can affect individuals through random crime, disease, or accident. For the most part, however, scarcity is created by governments.
That is true of the United States government. Government policy created and prolonged the Great Depression. It caused stagflation in the 1970's. It is behind the current depression.
Nevertheless, I feel fortunate to be an American. For it is the American experience which proves that scarcity need not exist. Since colonial days the abundance of land allowed many Americans to become property owners and prosper. There was religious tolerance. With no titles of nobility, the natural equality of free white men was assumed - and this was necessary for the concept of equality to expand. There were few internal barriers, excessive taxes, or burdensome regulations inhibiting trade. This allowed for tremendous innovation.
Inventions created in America conquered the air (the airplane), geographic barriers, (beginning with the telegraph), and the night (the light bulb). They recorded sound, changing the world's relationship to music. They recorded motion, creating a whole new art form. The sewing machine and washer and dryer made housekeeping much easier.
What Americans didn't invent, they either improved or made profitable. John D. Rockefeller made oil and kerosene far more affordable. Henry Ford made the automobile affordable. Most of the gadgets and appliances that billions enjoy today were made possible because the American middle class could afford them first. To this day, American entrepreneurs are at the forefront of the Digital Revolution, making almost all the world's knowledge instantaneously accessible to anyone, free of charge.
Over the course of our history, we have seen the country steadily grow in population even as products became more efficient, safer, and more affordable. Great exceptions, areas where there is scarcity such as health care, university tuition, energy, and the financial system itself, are areas in which the government is most heavily involved. If Americans learned from their own history what could be accomplished without government meddling, these problems could be resolved rather quickly.
The relatively high degree of freedom enjoyed in America for most of its history is the chief reason it prospered and re-made the modern world, benefiting billions. The rapidity of the changes and improvements demonstrate that we don't really live in a world of scarcity. There always was and always will be plenty to go around if government got out of the way. If individuals were free to develop creative solutions in areas such as energy, health, agriculture, and water purification, there's no limit to the abundance coming our way.
The American experience teaches the world that nobody has to be poor. It shows us that governments are the cause of - not the solution to - problems of scarcity and poverty. We can only hope and pray that President Obama and Congress will soon realize this.