Free Market

Wars of Poverty and Terror

The Free Market

The Free Market 21, no. 1 (January 2003)


Many of the same people who debunked Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, and ridiculed its failures, are enthusiastically backing George W. Bush’s War on Terror. Both are big-government programs. Why back one and not the other? 

Left-liberals say that the job of the state is to bring about fairness and equality, and thus the war on poverty was a great idea. Neoconservatives say, in contrast, the job of the state is to provide a police function of which the war on terror is a mere extension. In effect, they end up supporting each other’s pet program and the entire welfare-warfare state grows and grows. 

What neither side seems willing to address is the utter unworkability of both programs and their incompatibility with the idea of liberty. The model here is provided by Mises, who was the first to see that there are some things that the state is utterly incapable of doing no matter how much in the way of resources it consumes.

For example, it cannot create a socialist economy. Why not? Because the goal of socialism is unrealizable and, even if it were, the state has not the means to bring it about. So too with the idea of eradicating poverty and the threat of violence. Unlike socialism, the goals may be realizable. But whatever means the state attempts to use to bring it about is going to make the problem worse. 

Let us count the ways. 


Creating more of what they are trying to abolish

The War on Poverty assumed a fixed number of poor people. Give them aid, send them money, get them jobs, and they will no longer be poor. This will break the “cycle of poverty” and the next generation will not need aid. 

Well, exactly the opposite happened. The aid created an enticement not just to the existing poor but to those who now had every reason to become poor. Their ranks grew. And far from breaking a cycle, the War on Poverty taught each new generation how to live in a state of dependency on the state. What the war on poverty lacked was any method for actually getting people off the dole. 

So too does the war on terror assume a fixed number of terrorists. The theory is that once we find these people, we can wipe them out and eliminate the problem. But this fails to consider that the number of terrorists is not fixed. People can choose to become terrorists based on their own personal motivations. Because the impulse to become a terrorist is nearly always political, wars, sanctions, bombs, and agitation only end up recruiting more into their ranks as their anger at perceived injustice grows. In turn, the increased ranks of the targeted population only seem to generate a greater demand for the government’s services. The wars on poverty and terrorism, then, don’t reduce poverty or violence, but they do increase the objective conditions that would seem to justify the war. 


No end to escalation

One should be suspicious of any government program that would seem to require ever more spending and power in order to work. Government poverty relief had been around many decades before the Great Society, and there was no evidence that it had worked. Proponents claimed that this was because not enough resources were being poured into it. And so spending grew ever more, eventually reaching into the hundreds of billions per year, even though evidence of success was ever in short supply. 

So too with the war on terror. The war was declared by Bush after 9-11, but the rhetoric and spending against terrorism dates back decades. Whenever another terror attack occurred, the state would not rethink its tactics but rather conclude that what was needed was more of the same. Imagine if private business continued to escalate spending on areas that were losing money. Bankruptcy would ensue in short order. But the state faces no similar check on its activities. The answer is always more spending and more power, never less. 


No end game

The fatal flaw in the war on poverty was that the goal was vague (eliminate poverty), the means were unconnected to the goal (to be achieved through expansion of the dole or through fostering genuine economic independence?), and the limits were undefined (is the entire GDP up for grabs?). 

So too with the War on Terror. The goal might be to eliminate terror, but how can we know that this has in fact happened? Terrorism can strike any society at any time. What are the conditions under which the war will be declared to be won? If the war is won, does that constitute a case for continuing the war or pulling back and risking reoccurrence? In practice, of course, there are no conditions under which the war can be ended, which is good enough reason to question its purposes. 


No internal criticism or sense of irony

Even at the height of the war on poverty, huge swaths of Washington, DC, were impoverished and crime ridden, and filled with hopelessness. But rather than address the problem in their own backyards, the agencies created by the War on Poverty promised to solve problems in areas of the country about which they knew absolutely nothing. But the irony that DC bureaucrats could eliminate poverty in Los Angeles but not DC was completely lost on the administrators of the program. 

So too with the War on Terror. The month of October 2002 was dominated by news of the DC-area sniper who was murdering people randomly as they went about their daily lives. The Pentagon patrolled the skies, every federal police agency was busy on the problem, and every expert and database was employed to catch the sniper. In the end, it was the sniper himself who practically turned himself in, and it was a private individual who caught him. (By the way, his shooting skills were learned at US taxpayer expense.) 

But how can the US military eliminate terror in the Middle and Far East if it seems unable to do anything about terrorism in the backyard of the President of the United States? Once again, the irony seems to be entirely lost on these people. Let Washington, DC, rid itself of its own poverty before it experiments with the rest of the country. And let this city make its own streets safe from violence before it attempts to eradicate evil from the rest of the world. 


The incentive to make  problems worse 

It is the nature of the bureaucracy to perpetuate itself, and the only way it can do so is by making sure that the problem it is seeking to fix continues to be a problem, even an increasingly worse problem. Nothing is more bizarre than attending a job fair in DC and seeing how these bureaucracies recruit by promising to be around in perpetuity because the problem will never be solved. What’s more, these bureaucracies all have divisions devoted to funneling new recruits into the class of the dependent. 

Everything about the way the War on Terror is being conducted is taking the same path. The US talks of overthrowing regimes because they are acquiring weapons the US doesn’t want them to have, which makes those regimes more inclined to get those weapons and provides an excuse for the government in question to become more despotic. Without exception, every US military action has resulted in innocent deaths, which only inflames anti-US feeling and leads to more terrorism. 

Who has an incentive to stop the cycle? Certainly not the military. Certainly not the president and his staff, who see in the war on terror the chance for a permanent mention in the history books. 


Displacement of genuine  charity and security

A great tragedy of the War on Poverty is that public aid tends to displace private aid, both in the sense that people give less and the poor prefer the unrestricted aid from the state to the restricted and conditional aid of the private sector. This creates a general tendency of public aid to crowd out private aid. 

So too with issues of security. To the extent that the public sector is promising to provide safety from terrorism, it lulls society into a sense that a most essential function of civilization is being provided as a free good. Hence there is no particular reason to protect oneself or assess the extent of risk of violence. 

Had the Federal Aviation Administration left the job of security to the airlines, it is likely that 9-11 would never have happened. The pilots would have long ago prevailed and won the right to carry guns that would allow them to protect the plane and passengers. Instead, the airlines and customers trusted the state to provide protection, meanwhile allowing themselves to be disarmed. 

In the same sense that the War on Poverty leads to less charity and genuine concern for the poor, the War on Terror leads to less security and a greater degree of vulnerability to the violence-prone. 


The answer 

At some point in the War on Poverty, the citizenry began to catch on to the racket and began to demand a change. Spending on antipoverty programs has not declined, but the intensity with which the state has pursued its goal has diminished. No longer can politicians get elected on the promise of giving more handouts. 

There will come a time when the same trend will hit the War on Terror. In fact, it may already be the case that citizens are coming to regard politicians who promise such a thing to be merely masking a desire for more power and more of your money. This, after all, is what all wars the state conducts are really about. 

The right answer to all of the state’s wars, on whatever the social or political problem of the moment, is to end them and return resources and power to those to whom they belong, citizens in their capacity as private individuals. 


Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is president of the Mises Institute and editor of ( 


Rockwell, Llewellyn H. “Wars on Poverty and Terror.” The Free Market 21, no. 1 (January 2003).

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