Mises Daily Articles
Obama and the Continuing War on the Poor
A mentor of mine, Clarence Carson, published a book in the 1970s entitled The War on the Poor. He took his title from Lyndon Johnson's so-called "war on poverty." Carson noted that actual wars are waged against real people rather than circumstances, and that if the government were engaged in a war it must be against some identifiable group of people. In his book, he identified the poor as that group by analyzing the economic impact of the various policies that Johnson pursued. In each new initiative of the Great Society, the effect of those policies was to raise prices on various products and cause the poor in America to suffer for the sake of a few special interests.
Nothing much has changed in America. The only difference between then and now is the degree to which property is being attacked. Indeed, the entire political process seems to center around such attacks in the name of alleviating our misery, which more often than not is caused by some past program. Despite the misery that past policies have inflicted on us, during each election cycle our politicians travel the country telling us how their proposals will fix all that ails us. If they are incumbents, they argue that their policies will work if given sufficient time. Moreover, they tell us that they have been hindered in the performance of their promised feats because of their political opponents. Alternatively, challengers argue that only their proposed interventions will work to produce the desired economic prosperity. And so it goes, as each pursues the needed votes to ensure election.
Fortunately for our aspiring magicians, the media takes the process very seriously and devotes a great deal of time to covering the debate — without asking any serious questions as to whether intervention of any sort is a prudent course of action. The media thus gives a credibility to the process that would not exist without their endorsement. After all, if the media believes that the government is really able to produce something from nothing, then uncritical men and women in the street may have reason to believe it as well. To date this seems to be the case, since the failures of past policies are generally not pointed to as a reason for doubting current political promises.
There is, of course, one issue that our political aspirants never wish to discuss at any length. They never wish to discuss the costs of their proposal. If they are forced to discuss this topic at all, they simply argue that the many benefits of their scheme will vastly outweigh the upfront costs. Moreover, they invariably promote a plan to impose the costs upon the so-called rich people because they can afford it. Since no one knows any of these very rich people, many feel secure that the politician's plan will ultimately prove beneficial to them.
The magician lives by his deception. If the audience is ever able to see the reality of what the political class is actually doing, then these magicians would have to practice their magic craft privately. But this kind of fraud exposes them to the danger of spending time in prison (as Bernie Madoff can attest to). If they were not willing to risk jail time, the political class would instead have to work for a living. No longer would it be possible for them to live off of the fruits of other peoples' labor. They are indeed glad that the citizens of the land seem content for the most part to remain blind to the impoverishment they have perpetrated.
Actually, the deception of the modern day politician is nothing new. It is a very old practice, and history is full of cases where governmental authorities lived off the production of others. In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith observed that "[t]here is no art which one government sooner learns of another, than that of draining money from the pockets of the people."1
The process of looting the public appears to have gained momentum with the newest administration. It has embarked on a full-scale assault on the American public, aimed not only at ravaging the poor for a few special interests, but vastly increasing the number of people consigned to poverty. Whether we look at Obama and the Democrats' cap-and-trade legislation or their health care reform or their pork barrel stimulus bill, in each case they intend to raise prices and increase taxes on us all. While a few corporate interests will benefit grandly from such nonsense, the vast majority of us will be made poorer. The saddest part of all of this is that no one seems to care that the economic results will be most heavily felt by the weakest among us. The gross immorality of this oppression and tyranny should be evident to anyone who would but casually look at the situation. However, thus far the mainstream media has given Obama a pass, and the general population has chosen to remain blindly ignorant.
I suppose this is not new. In the political game, it seems that everyone is hoping to be numbered among the few beneficiaries. Moreover, it seems that people are basically unwilling to face a rather obvious economic truth: In this world there are only a few ways for each of us to obtain the things that we desire. We can produce the things ourselves starting from scratch, produce something valued by others and use that in trade for what we want, take the things from others by force or fraud, or receive them as gifts of charity. Only the first two of these are economic. Theft and charity cannot be universalized, because each can be achieved only by the prior production of others. It is this fact that led H.L. Mencken to note in his day that elections in America were nothing more than advanced auctions on stolen property. Or, as he quipped, "A good politician is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar."
Indeed, government redistribution of property is nothing more than systematic theft, whereby the politically well-healed steal from the masses. Whether it was the financial bailouts orchestrated by the Bush administration or the takeover of two auto makers by the Obama administration, government theft of private property is alive and well. It matters little to these people whether their actions impoverish others. Rather, they selfishly act upon their own greed and pursue political means to steal what they want from others. In truth, everyone whose hand is out begging for some government favor is participating in this immoral and unjust activity. Government is simply incapable of creating something out of nothing.
Regardless of what some newsmen evidently believe, Barack Obama is not the Almighty, capable of calling things into existence ex nihilo. It does not matter whether it is Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, George Bush, or Barrack Obama. A thief is a thief, and all thieves impoverish their victims.
- 1. John Haggarty, ed., The Wisdom of Adam Smith (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1976), p. 194.