The classical liberalism doctrine holds that all individuals have natural rights. The existence of certain natural rights brings with it the assertion that individuals have certain minimums that must be guaranteed by a government. For example, a natural right to liberty means that a government should not imprison people for no legitimate reason. For the classical liberal, a lack of respect for natural rights by governments can be used to help explain poverty and inequality. While natural rights do not guarantee that one will not be impoverished or that individuals will be roughly equal economically, when governments respect natural rights, then the people under such governments tend not to be impoverished because they are given sufficient opportunity to succeed. Poverty and inequality, nonetheless, can be considered the results of choices that people make under classical liberalism. When people choose not to work many hours every week, then they are likely to be impoverished. Likewise, because there are people who choose to work very little and many who work constantly, then there will be high inequality. Thus, the classical liberal explains poverty and inequality as being contributed to by both the government and the people. The classical liberal may put some blame on other social institutions as well, such as economic systems and educational systems.
The conservative tends to explain poverty and inequality as the result of history, tradition, and culture. Specifically, under conservativism, if there is poverty in a society it is the result of many years of custom or tradition. Thus, the conservative may hold that poverty is caused in part by society and that the government plays a large role in poverty. Nevertheless, the conservative tends to not want to change enough about society to eliminate poverty. The conservative believes strongly in keeping the traditions alive and maintaining the status quo, or else a revolution may happen. Because of this stance, the conservative may view poverty as an unfortunate result of the traditions and history of society. Conservatives, especially Edmund Burke, have held that inequality is not necessarily good for society. In fact, under conservatism, a government aimed at equality is unduly applying reason to change society in a rather unpredictable way. Inequality is perfectly acceptable for the conservative and any attempts by the government to alleviate inequality will likely result in negative consequences.
Under modern liberalism, inequality is the result of unequal distribution of opportunities and capital. According to modern liberals, unregulated capitalism will result in gross inequalities and high levels of poverty. The lack of proper redistribution channels and the inadequate use of such channels have led to the levels of poverty and inequality seen today. Thus, under modern liberalism, inequality is best explained as the lack of a proper welfare system that would require a minimum wage that would bring people above poverty, even if it is at the expense of the upper class. In addition, under modern liberalism, individuals should all be granted similar opportunities. Education, therefore, is a major component to the modern liberal’s explanation of both poverty and inequality. Certain classes receive much better education than others and, consequently, have much more opportunities than others.
Opportunity as an explanation of both poverty and inequality is shared among classic and modern liberals. However, opportunity is viewed much differently under modern liberalism than classical liberalism. Under classical liberalism, most individuals have roughly the same opportunities. If there are no explicit mechanisms, such as segregation laws, that are part of the legal, political, and educational systems in a state, then the classical liberal is likely to state that individuals in that state have roughly the same opportunities. As a result, classical liberals hold that any inequality in that state is largely the result of personal choice and little should be done to change that. Such individuals maintain the liberty to do what they wish with their lives for the most part. Modern liberals do not share this interpretation of opportunity. Instead, modern liberals hold that opportunity can be strongly influenced by implicit mechanisms in the legal, political, and education systems of a state. Thus, under modernism, individuals who are disadvantaged even implicitly by social institutions are not granted equal opportunity. Poverty and inequality, then, can be explained in part by the modern liberal as social institutions creating conditions favorable for unequal distributions of wealth, leaving many to be impoverished.
Marxism is a particularly popular radical theory. Under Marxism, poverty is the result of exploitation of the working class by the holders of the means of production. The working class includes all of those individuals who must work for a living and do not simply benefit from the labor of others. Under Marxism, unless workers rise up and challenge the upper class, the working class will continue to be exploited. Such exploitation is in the form of paying workers less for their labor than their labor is worth. The end result of such exploitation is the concentration of capital in the upper class. In addition, such exploitation leaves workers underpaid as prices continue to rise in the capitalist economic system. The upper class uses various means to improve their own financial positions, at the detriment of the working class. Such means include ideologies such as democratic and liberal ideologies, as well as religious ideologies, all intended to keep the working class satisfied even in poverty. Inequality, then, under Marxism is explained as the accumulation of wealth by the upper class and the exploitation of the working class.
Marxism is but one of many radical theories that each have their own explanations for poverty and inequality. While modern liberals, and to a lesser extent classical liberals, may put some of the blame for poverty and inequality on social institutions, such as governments and education systems, the radical tradition generally puts more blame for poverty and inequality on such institutions. Under many radical theories, society not only has implicit ways of increasing inequality and poverty, but is in fact intentionally structured to do so. Poverty is a state of vulnerability in which individuals are willing to work hard just to get by. Thus, for many radicals, high levels of poverty in a society may be good for the upper class. After all, high levels of poverty suggest that there are many willing individuals to work hard for a low wage, allowing the upper class to make even higher incomes. The very structure of capitalism, then, is a target for many radical theorists. Capitalisms, many would argue, is a leading cause of poverty and inequality. Meanwhile, other radical theories would argue that many governments are directly responsible for poverty and inequality. Representative governments, for example, only represent the interests of large corporations and the very wealthy, some radicals would argue. Under many radical theories, then, the best explanations for poverty and inequality are the social systems themselves, whether they include the economic system, the government, or even the educational system. On the continuum of blame for poverty and inequality on social institutions, conservatives blame institutions the least, then classical liberals, modern liberals, and, finally, radicals blame such institutions the most for poverty and inequality.