September 6, 2014
The bad news comes daily over our TV screens, and we wonder what can be done about it. People in northern Iraq recruited by ISIS, an organization with substantial financial resources, to go out and brutalize their neighbors. People in a poor neighborhood, taking advantage of discontent with a police officer’s actions in Missouri by looting their neighbors’ businesses. Higher rates of violent crime in inner city areas, including north Minneapolis.
There seems to be one common denominator to these. And that’s the problem of POVERTY.
When life is bleak, people are desperate, and there’s no hope for a better future, basic ethics and respect for one’s neighbors tends to get thrown out the window in the scramble just to survive. On the other hand, wealthy countries in the Middle East such as Dubai have almost no incidents of terrorism. In Minnesota and elsewhere in America, middle class and affluent suburbs have much lower rates of crime, where people can feel safe walking outdoors alone at night.
Poverty is a root cause behind many of society’s other problems, such as crime, drug abuse, and fragmented families. Many individuals who could otherwise live productive and meaningful lives cannot do so because they are mired in poverty, and their lives are wasted. Thus, as Libertarians, it behooves us to tackle this tough issue.
It’s important to point out that, while poorer areas tend to have more violence, even in impoverished northern Iraq, the vast majority are good people who have never aggressed against their neighbors. Even in north Minneapolis, the great majority of people try to earn an honest living to the best extent they can.
Before discussing some Libertarian solutions, let’s take a moment to review where the two major parties stand, in order to compare and contrast why Libertarians offer a much better alternative to both.
The Democratic Party
Over the decades since President Lyndon Johnson’s so-called “War on Poverty” in 1964, the Democrats have created giant government programs to distribute welfare to the poor. The programs have kept people from starvation and provided basic shelter, but little more. The unintended consequence has been to institutionalize poverty by fostering dependency on the system. Because welfare payments are dispensed by the government, many have come to view them as a “right”. More disturbingly, the Democrats have promoted strife in society by splitting people into groups and pitting them against each other. By pressing the issue of “inequality of wealth” they’ve played the politics of envy, encouraging poorer folks to resent those who are wealthier and convincing many to support the government’s tactics of extracting revenue from their neighbors to obtain their “fair share”. Unsurprisingly, many in the middle class and wealthy have also come to resent the poor, viewing them as freeloaders receiving handouts which they’re forced to subsidize with an ever-higher tax burden. Furthermore, the Democrats have created a vast bureaucracy of stifling laws and regulations, which hurt the poorest the most because it is the poor who have the least ability to navigate the maze. And Democrats continue to promote feel-good but harmful policies like the minimum wage (which we discussed at length here).
We can do better than a party which promotes divisiveness and resentment by engaging in class warfare, and a party which has never truly helped the poor to get ahead.
The Republican Party
Republicans have largely ignored the issue of poverty. Maintaining the welfare programs established by the Democrats, they’ve offered few ideas on any alternatives. Republican leaders have often said that the poor should just “pull themselves up by their bootstraps”. But how the poor could do this, when many simply don’t know how and with the system arrayed against them, is never explained. Furthermore, the GOP has actually shown hostility toward the poor. Republican folk hero and President Ronald Reagan once dismissed the homeless, stating that they choose to live that way. More recently, President George W Bush and the GOP have championed a new Berlin Wall along the southern border to keep out poor immigrants, in some places topped with barbed wire just like the original. One wonders if Republicans would have preferred to keep out immigrants like Albert Einstein, known for his revolutionary ideas in physics, or Nikola Tesla, the inventor of alternating-current electricity which forms the basis of the entire American power grid. Or if they even realize that 1 of 5 companies in Silicon Valley are founded by an immigrant.
We can do better than a party which ignores poverty, openly expresses hostility toward the poor, and offers no real solutions on this issue.
Libertarian Party Solutions
It should be clear how much the Two Big Old parties have let people down … and why an upstart party with new answers is very much needed today.
How to solve the problem? Simon Black stated it quite well: poverty is not caused by a “lack of money”, but by a “lack of ability or opportunity to create value”. What does that mean? Well, every individual needs and desires a wide assortment of items and services, which they can either get from their own labor, or by trading with other individuals who create them. When people cannot learn skills which are needed by others or aren’t allowed to trade with others for the things they need, poverty is the result. On the other hand, when an individual can create value and exchange it with value created by another individual, both people end up better off, and society in general becomes wealthier.
The Libertarian solution to poverty? This should come as no surprise, it’s FREEDOM. Let’s delve into some tangible ways that Libertarians can implement freedom so it can benefit everyone, and the poor in particular:
– Teach entrepreneurship. Libertarians can call for entrepreneurs to step forward and bring their know-how into high schools, and also create space in school curricula for these sessions. Students in poor inner-city areas have responded with enthusiasm in the few cases where this has been tried. Rather than memorizing facts for tests or studying topics that have little apparent relevance when hunger is a daily concern, learning how to think entrepreneurially is a real-world skill that students can put to immediate use, even as teens. Learning how to identify areas where someone else has a need, thinking creatively to meet that need, developing a business plan, and learning from failure, are key skills which can last a lifetime. Making money by turning an idea into action can build self-confidence, create pride of accomplishment, and of course, bring in needed income. Entrepreneurs, especially those who started from nothing, are often only too happy to help others learn how to succeed. For example, international libertarian-entrepreneurs Simon Black and Doug Casey have organized the Casey Youth Conference on Liberty and Entrepreneurship (CYCLE) events all over the world, free of charge to students, nearly all of whom have become successful and a few of whom have even become millionaires in their 20s. What if such know-how could be made available in America too? Libertarians in Minnesota are already working outside of politics to promote entrepreneurship and independent-living, most recently organizing the AgoraFest event. But Libertarian candidates are still needed in elected office to bring these ideas to those in poor areas, who need this knowledge the most.
– Stop stifling entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, our system has been moving in the opposite direction. Any small business owner can describe the costly permitting and burdensome regulations they must deal with on a daily basis. Intended to promote health, safety, and a clean environment, many regulations fail to accomplish those purposes or any useful purpose at all. Some may recall the story of the entrepreneurial-minded teen who saved some money to buy a hot dog stand so that he could earn money to help his ailing parents, only to have it shut down by heartless bureaucrats; the family became homeless and had to sign up for welfare as a result. Government bureaucrats have become so aggressive that they’ve even begun targeting children. Opening a street-side lemonade stand was a rite of childhood for many of us, but across America today, kids are learning that acting entrepreneurially gets them in trouble with bureaucrats and police for lack of permits and health code violations. When elected to public office, Libertarians will crack down on senseless regulations and get tough on power-hungry bureaucrats bent on smothering enterprise and initiative.
– The promise of Hong Kong. Libertarian policies have been a stunning success in the very few places they’ve been tried. Hong Kong is an excellent example, a place where poverty has been almost entirely defeated. See for yourself! Here is libertarian journalist John Stossel, exploring why freedom and entrepreneurship are key to solving poverty in his program ‘Is America Number One?’. He compares America to one of the world’s richest countries (Hong Kong) and one of the poorest (India). Watching just the first 15 minutes will be an eye-opener. Stossel is one of the few reporters performing real investigative journalism, and it’s a testament to the quality of his work that this program, made in 1999, remains as relevant today. The link is a must-see!
– Replace welfare with charity. Some people will still need direct aid, such as after a disaster or until they gain self-sufficiency. Charities such as the Red Cross and the Salvation Army fill essential needs in these areas, respectively. Private charity provides a much better “social safety net” than government welfare, and there are three reasons why. First, charity is voluntary. Donors can feel good knowing that they’re helping people in need, rather than feeling resentful that they’re forced to pay taxes for welfare. Recipients understand that they’re receiving aid that’s not necessarily guaranteed to continue, encouraging them to become self-sufficient as quickly as they can, rather than taking it for granted with a government program. Second, charities are staffed by caring volunteers and activists who genuinely seek to help the poor. They can provide customized assistance to each person’s needs, tailored to help each person get on their feet. That is a stark contrast to a bureaucrat working in a welfare office, whose main concern is whether the right paperwork has been filed and who must send out checks of a certain amount and for a certain time period as required by law. Charities can also innovate in ways that government cannot. An example is the Rawhide Boys Ranch, created by NFL hall-of-famer Bart Starr. Rawhide encourages people to donate their older cars, which troubled youths repair and rehabilitate, learning a valuable skill and a sense of self-accomplishment. Third, donors can hold charities accountable. If a charity wastes money or has a poor track record of delivering aid, donors can withhold their contributions and instead donate to other charities which do the job better. Such accountability is certainly not the case for any government program.
With the tools of knowledge, a free and open marketplace, and occasional voluntary assistance from others, it’s possible for ALL people to get ahead. The basis of a genuinely free marketplace is where every individual, using their own skills and talents, can trade with each other to come out better than before, and where the opportunity to grow and succeed is available to everyone.
While our social problems seem to be a constant fixture, there is no need for hunger or despair. In a prosperous society where people have opportunity to get ahead and hope for a better future, fewer people will be drawn toward crime, violence, or extremism. No matter a person’s gender, race, nationality, or economic status, the opportunity to live a productive and meaningful life is something that every human being deserves. As children, we were told that we can be whatever we want to be, so long as we set our minds to it. But that dream has been elusive for many people, and it’s high time to make it into a reality.
Would a libertarian society work? You’re darn right it would … and already has! Just look at Hong Kong.
The success of Hong Kong clearly shows how a Libertarian approach differs from that of the Democrats. Democrats hold a mistaken view of the economy as a fixed pie; if someone gets a bigger piece, then someone else must accept a smaller piece. But Libertarians understand that the entire pie can be made larger so everyone can have more.
Libertarians are not content to settle for catchy buzzwords or slick bumpersticker slogans. Nor are we merely a “protest vote” against the two-party system. The Two Big Old parties have failed us, but now there’s a reason for new hope. Libertarians are ready to roll up our sleeves, get to work, and tackle the tough problems that our society faces … including the critical issue of poverty.
LPMN Vice Chair
Concerned about the expansion of government control and the erosion of individual liberty? Please consider joining and becoming active with the Libertarian Party of Minnesota. Libertarians support liberty on all issues, all the time. Libertarianism is a philosophical and political movement to promote personal freedom, strong civil liberties, a genuinely free marketplace, and peace.