Caged In By Poverty And Government

At the risk of becoming Charles Johnson's unsolicited press-agent, for linking to and quoting from his writings far more often than is healthy, I implore you to read his recent cover article in the December issue of The Freeman, Scratching By: How Government Creates Poverty as We Know It.

Government anti-poverty programs are a classic case of the therapeutic state setting out to treat disorders created by the state itself. Urban poverty as we know it is, in fact, exclusively a creature of state intervention in consensual economic dealings. This claim may seem bold, even to most libertarians. But a lot turns on the phrase “as we know it.” Even if absolute laissez faire reigned beginning tomorrow, there would still be people in big cities who are living paycheck to paycheck, heavily in debt, homeless, jobless, or otherwise at the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. These conditions may be persistent social problems, and it may be that free people in a free society will still have to come up with voluntary institutions and practices for addressing them. But in the state-regimented market that dominates today, the material predicament that poor people find themselves in—and the arrangements they must make within that predicament—are battered into their familiar shape, as if by an invisible fist, through the diffuse effects of pervasive, interlocking interventions.

Consider the commonplace phenomena of urban poverty. Livelihoods in American inner cities are typically extremely precarious: as Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh writes in Off the Books: “Conditions in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty can change quickly and in ways that can leave families unprepared and without much recourse.” Fixed costs of living—rent, food, clothing, and so on—consume most or all of a family’s income, with little or no access to credit, savings, or insurance to safeguard them from unexpected disasters.

Their poverty often leaves them dependent on other people. It pervades the lives of the employed and the unemployed alike: the jobless fall back on charity or help from family; those who live paycheck to paycheck, with little chance of finding any work elsewhere, depend on the good graces of a select few bosses and brokers. One woman quoted by Venkatesh explained why she continued to work through an exploitative labor shark rather than leaving for a steady job with a well-to-do family: “And what if that family gets rid of me? Where am I going next? See, I can’t take that chance, you know. . . . All I got is Johnnie and it took me the longest just to get him on my side.” ...

The favorite solutions of the welfare state—government doles and “urban renewal” projects—mark no real improvement. Rather than freeing poor people from dependence on benefactors and bosses, they merely transfer the dependence to the state, leaving the least politically connected people at the mercy of the political process.

But in a free market—a truly free market, where individual poor people are just as free as established formal-economy players to use their own property, their own labor, their own know-how, and the resources that are available to them—the informal, enterprising actions by poor people themselves would do far more to systematically undermine, or completely eliminate, each of the stereotypical conditions that welfare statists deplore. Every day and in every culture from time out of mind, poor people have repeatedly shown remarkable intelligence, courage, persistence, and creativity in finding ways to put food on the table, save money, keep safe, raise families, live full lives, learn, enjoy themselves, and experience beauty, whenever, wherever, and to whatever degree they have been free to do so. The fault for despairing, dilapidated urban ghettoes lies not in the pressures of the market, nor in the character flaws of individual poor people, nor in the characteristics of ghetto subcultures. The fault lies in the state and its persistent interference with poor people’s own efforts to get by through independent work, clever hustling, scratching together resources, and voluntary mutual aid.

The entire article touches on our recent discussion here at Distributed Republic about privilege and grinding poverty, but especially salient is Charles' choice introductory quote:

The experience of oppressed people is that the living of one’s life is confined and shaped by forces and barriers which are not accidental or occasional and hence avoidable, but are systematically related to each other in such a way as to catch one between and among them and restrict or penalize motion in any direction. It is the experience of being caged in: all avenues, in every direction, are blocked or booby trapped.

—Marilyn Frye, “Oppression,” in The Politics of Reality

Had I read Charles article before writing the above linked DR post, I think I would have placed much less of an emphasis on cultural beliefs and practices, and much greater emphasis on the legal and regulatory economic pitfalls created by the state itself. Thank you, Charles, for redirecting my attention towards the central problem.

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