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For much of the 20th century, the United States government has waged its Wars on Poverty, Drugs, and Illiteracy. And there is no better evidence of the failure of these wars than the riots that occurred in Los Angeles.
The principles that undergird America’s economic system in our time are radically different from those under which our ancestors operated. With exceptions, (slavery and tariffs being the most notable), early Americans established a unique way of life. No income taxes. No economic regulations. No governmental welfare. No drug laws. And, for most of the nation, no system of public schooling.
Americans were free to accumulate unlimited amounts of wealth, live their lives the way they chose, enter into peaceful exchanges with one another, and make their own educational decisions. Government’s primary role was to protect the citizenry from the violent and fraudulent acts of others. What was the result of this unusual society? The most prosperous nation in history! — especially for those at the bottom of the economic ladder. And this was true though thousands of penniless immigrants flooded American shores every day. In his book The Growth of America: 1878-1928, the historian Clarence Carson wrote, “New discoveries and inventions abounded; sanitation and health facilities were clearly improving; Population was increasing, Perhaps as never before in history; and people is generally had the means for producing and had a greater variety of goods available than ever before. ”
Moreover, the result was the most “voluntary” nation in history. In his book Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive.”
The 20th century, however, saw the abandonment of America’s heritage of liberty. The year 1913 saw the enactment of the Sixteenth Amendment, enabling the passage of the progressive income tax. In that same year, Congress set the stage for decades of inflation when it set up the Federal Reserve System. The following year, 1914, Congress passed America’s first drug law — the Harrison Narcotic Act, the first step in what would ultimately become one of the most brutal wars ever waged by a government against its own people.
The 20th century also brought with it universal, “free,” compulsory schooling. As Brookings Institute fellows John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe point out in their book Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, “Until the fast few decades of the 1900s, there was really nothing that could meaningfully be called a public ‘system’ of education in the United States.” But 20th-century Americans believed differently: they demanded that the state force people to send their children to government-approved institutions where they would learn government-approved doctrine from government-approved schoolteachers using government-approved textbooks.
The full rejection of America’s founding principles took place in the 1930s — during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR’s New Deal sowed the seeds of America’s welfare-state, regulated-economy way of life: the Agricultural the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the National Labor Relations Act, the Social Security Act, and on and on. From the 1930s on, the U.S. government exercised the full power to take money from some to give it to others and to regulate virtually every aspect of human life.
Thirty years later, following the footsteps of his mentor FDR, President Lyndon Johnson declared his War on Poverty: “Today we are asked to make war on a domestic enemy which threatens the strength of our nation and the welfare of our people…. I have called for a national war on poverty. Our objective: total victory.” The 1960s saw the creation of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW), Medicare, Aid to Education, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and on and on. LBJ’s War on Poverty made the welfare state the official economic way of life in the United States.
The 20th century also saw the full blossoming of the government’s War on Drugs. The Harrison Act (1914) was followed by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (1930), the Marijuana Tax Act (1937), the Narcotics Control Act (1956), the Comprehensive Drug Abuse and Prevention Act (1970), and on and on. And every U.S. president since Richard Nixon has made winning the drug war a centerpiece of his administration.
Isn’t it time — after decades of war — to judge these wars by their results? The supporters of the wars ask us to defer judgment day: “Please — give us five more years, permit us to raise taxes a little higher, and let us have one more chance to reform the system.” But that is what the warriors have been saying since the start of these wars. No! The time has come to pass judgment on America’s domestic wars and, to decide whether they should continue or be ended.
The first question that needs to be asked is, have the wars been won? It is virtually impossible to find anyone — in or out of government — who claims that any of the wars have been victorious. On the contrary, just about everyone admits that all three have been abject failures. In his landmark book Losing Ground, the noted social scientist Charles Murray documented the failure of the War on Poverty:
“Basic indicators of well-being took a turn for the worse in the 1960s, most consistently and most drastically for the poor. In some cases, earlier progress slowed; in other cases mild deterioration accelerated; in a few instances advance turned into retreat…. We tried to provide more for the poor and produced more poor instead. We tried to remove the barriers to escape from poverty, and inadvertently built a trap.”
What about the War on Drugs? In 1987, the Office of Technology Assessment concluded, “Despite a doubling of Federal expenditures on interdiction over the past five years, the quantity of drugs smuggled into the United States is greater than ever.” And Steven Witsotsky, professor of legal studies at Nova University Law Center in Fort Lauderdale, in his 1990 book Beyond the War on Drugs, wrote:
“The social ‘return’ on the extra billions spent during the 1980s has been a drug-abuse problem of historic magnitude, accompanied by a drug-trafficking parasite of international dimensions…. It is not simply that the War on Drugs has failed to work; it has in many respects made things worse. It has spun a spider’s web of black-market pathologies, including roughly 25 percent of all urban homicides, widespread corruption of police and other public officials, street crime by addicts, and subversive ‘narco-terrorist’ alliances between Latin American guerrillas and drug traffickers.” And the War on Illiteracy? The results are just as bad. In Liberating Schools, published in 1991, William H. Niskanen, chairman of the Cato Institute and a former member of the Council of Economic Advisers, wrote,
“The time for excuses is over. All of the conventional proposals for school reform have been implemented — and have failed…. Although average student performance increased somewhat in the 1980s, the average composite score on the SAT is now about the same as in 1974 and is much lower than it was in 1963. And the absolute level of understanding of basic subjects is dismally low, even among our best students, in terms of both our own standards and international comparisons.”
Have there been any winners in these wars? The most apparent winners, of course, have been the politicians and bureaucrats who saw their power and budgets expanded as a result of the wars. What about the losers? The wealthy and the middle class — those who had their money plundered from them to fund these ways — have certainly been among the losers.
But the real losers — the true victims of America’s domestic wars — have been the residents of inner cities all across America.
This brings us to the L.A. riots.
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