Republicans Surrender to War on Poverty (2014 Feb)

by Barry A. Liebling

Fifty years ago President Lyndon B. Johnson launched the War on Poverty. The manifest goal of this stupendous government initiative was to lift poor people out of impoverishment and make them tax-paying, productive members of the middle class. After half a century the war continues to escalate with more than 80 federal programs that deliver cash and services to eligible Americans. More than $20 trillion has been siphoned from the private economy to pay for President Johnson’s creation – with nearly $1 trillion spent in the last year. After five decades of tax-funded meddling with the lives of citizens the poverty rate has inched down slightly. Nearly the same proportion of Americans are officially poor as when the War on Poverty was started.

On balance did the War on Poverty succeed? To twist a phrase from our 42nd president, “it depends on what the meaning of (success) is.” The ostensive goal of the War on Poverty was to use the power of government to assure that there would be few, or ideally no, people who were economically deprived. By this standard the War on Poverty did not succeed. The federal government spent oceans of money, passed a huge number of laws and regulations, brought new agencies into existence, and let its handiwork simmer for a half-century. This is way too large an effort to achieve so little.

Bear in mind that from the beginning – as well as today – many supporters of the War on Poverty embraced and continue to cherish the official goal of the immense undertaking. But a substantial number of enthusiasts – especially members of the leftist intellectual elite – recognize the ostensive objective as a pretense for the real prize – the expansion and strengthening of the welfare state. To these progressive boosters actually reducing poverty is nice but not crucial. Far more important is their ambition for an overbearing, activist, intrusive state. Their prime objective is to nurture an ever growing, more powerful government that supervises, regulates, manages, and directs American lives.

Note that the progressive goal is the antithesis of what the proper role of government is – the protection of individual rights. A government is fulfilling its legitimate mission when it protects life, liberty, and property – proscribing the initiation of force or the use of fraud. To deviate from this proper – and strictly limited – function and becoming a boss, or a parent, or a nanny of citizens is the path to tyranny.

To members of the Democrat-Progressive-Leftist crowd the War on Poverty is a qualified success because it bolsters their ambitions for transforming America. Progressives and their supporters remain firmly committed to achieving their long term goals. And, equally important, most opposition to a ballooning welfare state is fragmented, inconsistent, and ineffective.

To welfare state champions all good things are the result of strong government actions, and any outcome – whether positive or negative – is a signal that more government action is needed. The only question is how much additional government tampering citizens will tolerate. No matter how many people are living in poverty, according to progressives, there would be even more if not for the myriad of government welfare programs. Of course it is troubling that anyone in America is poor, but there is an upside. Any deprivation is unassailable proof that additional government interventions should be devised and implemented. And when a government welfare program appears to be doing what it was designed to do that is a sure sign that it is on the right track and deserves even more funding.

Who stands in opposition to the War on Poverty – a near synonym to the inflated welfare state? The progressives refer to their opponents as the extreme right, but this fails to capture the heterogeneity of their adversaries. Among those who are repelled by the leftist political agenda only a small minority are philosophically savvy and appreciate the concepts of individual rights and limited government. Many more are uncomfortable with the policies of the Democratic party but have surrendered to the fallacies that the War on Poverty has merit, and the welfare state is an unavoidable burden on American life.

The most prominent segment of the ineffectual right is the “mature and realistic” Republican faction. They earn the “mature and realistic” label because – unlike “extremists” such as free market advocates, exponents of individualism, and tea party sympathizers – they accept key premises of progressive leftists. Their point of difference is they believe that the heavy hand of government should be used to further “conservative-inspired objectives” and should move at a slower, more cautious pace.

“Mature and realistic” Republicans deplore that many Americans remain poor, and they attribute the problem to programs that were neither designed well nor implemented properly. They complain that the great expansion of the welfare state not only failed to deliver prosperity to its intended recipients but also brought about social problems such as fewer marriages, more divorces, and more children born to single mothers. These Republicans – who called themselves “compassionate conservatives” during the Bush 43 years – are convinced that the flaw in the War on Poverty is that it was not managed by people who embrace conservative principles. What is needed is a government that incentivizes, directs, and nudges its citizens to behave according to their playbook – which includes tax-funded rewards for working, staying in school, and being married.

Notice that “mature and realistic” Republicans in no way threaten the progressive vision of a colossal government bureaucracy that keeps Americans on a leash. When they are elected and assume political power they will – at best – slow the speed at which the government thwarts individual freedom. At worst, they will demonstrate how “reasonable” they are by initiating some government take-overs of their own. Witness No Child Left Behind and the Prescription Drug Coverage of Bush 43.

The fix to the real problem will occur when more Americans embrace the value of liberty and vote accordingly. We can be stuck in an endless War on Poverty or we can be free – but not both.

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