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The Liberal Assault on the Poor, Part 1

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Liberals say that they love the poor, needy, and disadvantaged. Unfortunately, however, the economic philosophy that liberals favor constitutes a direct assault on the economic well-being of the poor, along with nearly everyone else in society.

Liberals claim to combat poverty in two principal ways.

First, they use the force of government (e.g., income taxes) to take money from those who have earned it in order to give it to the poor.

Second, they restrict people’s use of their property to enable the poor to have access to such property.

What liberals fail to understand, however, is that the very means they choose to combat poverty — socialism and interventionism — actually exacerbate the problem that they claim to address. Their war on poverty hurts the very people they say they are trying to assist.

In proposing welfare-state programs, by necessity liberals always make an important assumption. They assume that there is wealth in society. After all, if there is no wealth then what good would welfare-state policies do? The welfare state operates on the assumption that there are people who are earning wealth or have accumulated wealth. Those are the people from whom the government takes money in order to redistribute it to the poor.

Let’s consider a hypothetical case based on science fiction. Astronomers discover that an inhabitable planet is hurtling toward our solar system and will soon join the other planets in orbit around the sun. Faced with overcrowding of its prisons, the federal government decides to exile 50,000 prisoners on a spaceship to the planet. Everyone is given six months of supplies on which to survive — food, water, and clothing — and nothing else.

When the prisoners arrive on the planet, they call into existence a federal government, democratically elected. Federal officials are empowered to do everything and anything they can to combat the extreme poverty that is immediately facing society.

Liberals are elected to the presidency and to Congress. They propose a massive welfare-state program modeled on Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Social Security. Medicare and Medicaid. Public housing. Food stamps. Grants to education. Agricultural subsidies. Unemployment relief.

Do you see the problem? The federal government isn’t a fountain of wealth. It has no money. Its coffers are empty. In order to get the money to distribute all these welfare benefits to people, it must first impose a tax on people.

But do you see the next problem? There are no wealthy or even middle-class people who can be taxed because everyone in this society is poor.

In proposing their array of welfare programs to help the poor, liberals operate under the mindless assumption that wealth exists naturally in a society. Even worse, they give nary a thought to the possibility that a society in which wealth is growing is the greatest benefit to the poor. Worst of all, they don’t consider the distinct possibility that their own tax-and-redistribute policies tend toward destroying the base of wealth in society, thereby relegating everyone to poverty.

Let’s return to our hypothetical example regarding the prisoners on the new planet. Everyone is poor. Welfare-state policies to combat the poverty will obviously not work because there are no wealthy people to take money from in order to redistribute it to the poor. So what can be done to combat poverty?
Ownership, collective and private

The liberals come up with a novel solution. They adopt a system by which the government owns everything and by which everyone works for the government. People will be assigned houses to build, businesses to run, or places in fields to grow crops. Government officials will be in charge of planning everything — which crops will be planted, which occupations people will be assigned to, which houses will be built, which consumer goods will be produced. Central planners will distribute food, housing, clothing, and other essentials in accordance with the needs of each person and each family.

Everyone seems happy with the scheme, especially since it mirrors much of the prison life to which the prisoners had been accustomed. But a problem arises, one involving human nature. No one feels like working very hard. Agricultural workers are constantly getting sick. People are doing jobs for which they are ill-suited. Goods and services are scarce, and the situation is getting worse for everyone.

Actually, this hypothetical society isn’t far from reality. It is pretty much what happened when the first colonists arrived at Plymouth Rock. They formed a society in which most property would be collectively owned and shared.

The result? Starvation and famine.

One day, Governor Bradford changed the system. From that day forward, everyone would be entitled to own his own property and keep the fruits of his labor for himself and his family. No longer would people be forced to share their earnings with others.

Immediately, everyone began working harder and accumulating wealth. No more starvation and famine. The bounty produced by this private-property system formed the foundation for the first Thanksgiving.

What would be the solution to poverty in our hypothetical example? It would a libertarian one, a solution based on private property and free markets. Everyone would be free to go into any business he chose. In that way, people could pursue their own interests and talents in an attempt to provide goods or services that other people would be interested in purchasing.

People would be free to engage in any economic trade with anyone else, without interference or regulation by the government.

People would also be free to accumulate the fruits of their earnings. There would be no income tax imposed on the people.

Obviously, at first there would still be manifest poverty, given the difficulties in accumulating wealth. People struggling to survive have a difficult time saving any money. But by the time of the second generation, things will have improved a bit, with families actually accumulating savings that they would then be free to pass down to the third generation.

Within a few decades, such a system of free enterprise would not only generate millionaires but also raise the standard of living for those at the bottom of the economic ladder. Equally important, the poor would know that they had a chance to join the ranks of the middle class and wealthy simply by working hard and providing a product or service that other people were willing to pay for.

This, too, is not as hypothetical as it sounds, as it pretty much describes the situation in the United States after the adoption of the Constitution in 1787 and continuing through the early 1900s. For the first time in history, people were able to engage in enterprise freely (that is, without government regulation or control) and accumulate unlimited amounts of wealth (that is, without their incomes’ being taxed).

That’s not to say, however, that the process of wealth creation was an immediate one. For the first few decades, life was very difficult, as it would be in any society in which there exists only a small base of wealth.

Liberals often point to the Industrial Revolution as an example of the horrors of the free-market system. Factory conditions, for example, were horrific for those working there, including wives and children, as liberals are so fond in reminding us.

But liberals miss an important point. Those factories, as bad as they were, offered a chance for survival to those who were working in them. A society in which there is no foundation of wealth and no chance of accumulating wealth will inevitably have people starving to death.

A society in which there is limited wealth but in which people are free to engage in enterprise and accumulate wealth will inevitably have people struggling to survive but at least having a chance to survive.

That’s what was occurring during the Industrial Revolution. American husbands and fathers were sending their wives and children into factories not because they hated them but because they knew that that was the only chance they had to keep them alive.

Then, as families began accumulating wealth, the need to send the entire family into the factories became less desperate. It was not government but rather capital — the accumulation of savings — that ultimately brought wives and children out of the factories.

The key, then, to a rising standard of living in a society lies in savings and capital. Let’s examine how this is so.
The role of capital

Let’s assume that a farmer owns a 100-acre tract of land on which he grows various crops. He employs one worker, whose sole piece of equipment is a hoe. The farmer pays the worker $10,000 per year and has additional expenses of $5,000. At the end of the year, the farmer sells his crops at market for $20,000, earning him a profit of $5,000.

Since the farmer has earned a profit of $5,000, he can use part of that money to give his worker a raise. But let’s assume that a $5,000 profit is the minimum amount of profit that the farmer has concluded he needs to remain in business. Since farming is a risky business, one in which a crop could sell for much less than anticipated, the farmer just doesn’t feel it’s worth his while to engage in farming if he can’t earn at least $5,000 for himself and his family.

Assuming that things stay the same from year to year, that means that the worker’s income simply cannot go up. It must remain the same, given that the farmer lacks the financial means by which to pay the worker more money.

But what if the farmer can somehow increase production? Suppose he can double the output on his 100-acre tract of land? If he’s able to do that, he’s then able to give his worker a pay raise.

So how does the farmer pull that off? That’s where capital comes into play. Each year, the farmer puts away $500 of his profit. After a few years, he uses his savings to purchase a used tractor. Now, the worker is no longer using a hoe. He’s got a tractor to plant, cultivate, and harvest the crops. Let’s say that production doubles, which increases the farmer’s profit to $10,000.

That means that the farmer now has more money at his disposal to increase the pay of the worker.

Does the worker need to rely on the beneficence of his employer to guarantee the pay raise? No, because the worker knows that there are surrounding farms that are also employing workers. All that he has to do is check around and see what competing farms are offering and ask his employer to match it. If the farmer fails to do so, the employee can accept a competing offer, leaving his employer with no one to work on his farm.

Thus, the people who are among the primary beneficiaries of capital accumulation are the poor — those who are wage-earners at the bottom of the economic ladder. They have as much interest in the success of the company they’re working for as the owner has. The more the company invests its profits in productive capital, the more profits the company stands to earn, enabling more money to be devoted to pay raises. Moreover, the more other companies are doing the same, the more they are able to bid up the real wage rates of the wage-earning class.
Return to poverty

Now, let’s return to our science-fiction example where the prisoners are living on that new planet. Let’s propel them forward by 100 years. By that time, people have accumulated massive amounts of wealth and everyone has a very high standard of living. There are, of course, those who are much wealthier than others but by the same token, those who are the poorest have a nice living standard. Everyone understands that the high standard of living depends, in fact, on the savings and capital accumulation engaged in by the very wealthy and by everyone else.

Reenter the liberals. Seeing all this wealth, they exclaim, “Notwithstanding God’s injunction against coveting, it’s simply not fair that some have more when others have less. We wish to declare war on poverty. Let us rid ourselves of this libertarian free-market scourge and establish a socialistic welfare state, one in which the federal government will take from those at the top of the economic ladder and redistribute it to those at the bottom of the economic ladder.”

People succumb to the liberals’ siren song. At first, everything works fine. Old people are getting free retirement payments and health care. Poor people are getting free housing, food, and clothing. Producers are getting free subsidies. Children are getting free education.

People fail to notice, however, a disquieting phenomenon. The ranks of the wealthy slowly start dropping because those who are barely on the margin of the wealthy and middle class drop back into the lower category, owing to the new income taxes imposed on them to fund all the free programs.

As the process grows, the tax base shrinks, causing federal officials to extend their income tax to the middle class. That causes people on the margin between the poor and middle class to begin dropping back into the lower category.

Gradually, taxes continue to expand and rise to keep the socialistic system going, bringing about an ominous development — a gradual reduction in savings and capital accumulation, the keys to a rising standard of living.

In fact, our hypothetical case is not so hypothetical. It describes the economic history of the United States for most of the 20th century. After 19th-century Americans had brought into existence an unprecedented accumulation of capital and, consequently, the highest standard of living in history, 20th-century liberals saw a golden opportunity, one that would enable them to tax the wealthy, and later the middle class, to help out the poor. That is what Roosevelt’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society were all about — using government to take money from those who had earned it and giving it to those who had not earned it.

Over time, socialism returns people to a state of poverty, one in which everyone is equal by virtue of everyone’s having nothing. Cuba is a good example. By taking everything away from the wealthy and middle class, including their businesses, homes, and bank accounts, with the alleged intent of helping the poor, Fidel Castro carried the socialist principle to its logical conclusion.

The result? Manifest poverty. In fact, if it hadn’t been for loans and grants from the Soviet Union (which itself was based on the socialist confiscation-and-redistribution principle), Cubans would have faced the same result as the people at Plymouth Rock — starvation and famine.

The only reason that the U.S. standard of living continued rising during the era of American socialism was that the private sector continued accumulating savings and wealth faster than federal officials were confiscating it. The invention of computers, for example, almost immediately made workers much more productive.

But it is impossible to say how much more productive Americans would be — how much higher our standards of living would be — if the wealth-producing process that our American ancestors had brought into existence had been free to continue. If Americans had never adopted the income tax and the welfare state, it boggles the mind to think how much better off the American people would be, especially those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

Part 1 | Part 2

This article originally appeared in the December 2009 edition of Freedom Daily.

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    Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.