The Battle in the Streets


This article is reprinted by permission from Dr. Carson’s new book, The War on the Poor (Ar­lington House, 1969). Copies of the book are also available from the Foundation for Eco­nomic Education, Irvington-on-Hudson, N. Y., $ 5.95.

The Achilles heel of the socialist theory is that the more intensively it is applied the more the human being loses his options. Without the free interplay of the forces of the free marketplace the greater must be the centralization of planning and authority, and the greater the role of coercion.

The battle in the Streets is an omen, a sign, a portent, and it must be interpreted as such. It is a dramatic presentation for all of us to see of what is wrong with the programs the government has em­ployed. The rioters are following the lesson plan learned from the government; they have learned the lesson well and are now applying it. For decades, government has made war on the poor with pro­grams that were supposed to bene­fit them. It has sanctioned the use of force to achieve what would otherwise be economic ends. It has penalized production of farm prod­ucts, fostered union organization and tactics, taken by force from those who produce to give to those who do not.

The government, by example, has taught that the way to pros­perity is to avoid the requirements of economy, to spend rather than save, to destroy rather than to produce. It has taught, by its ac­tions, that those who save, invest, build, produce, provide jobs, offer services are dangerous antag­onists, if not outright enemies, of society. On the other hand, it has taught that those who do nothing worthwhile, who roam the streets and parks, who malinger or plan demonstrations to force conces­sions, are objects for special con­sideration and solicitude. Govern­ment has said, by way of its pro­grams, that the way to improve life in the cities is to demolish the buildings and make the earth bare.

The Battle in the Streets is a paradigmatic imitation of all this. The rioters demolish buildings with molotov cocktails and fire, leaving structures scarred ruins, driving out small businessmen and inhabitants. They loot the stores, taking from those who produce for those who do not. The enemy is clearly made up of those who have saved, invested, built, pro­duced, provided jobs, offered serv­ices, and so on. The work of years is undone in short order by the rioters.

Government Points the Way

All this is clearly diseconomic, but then government had shown the way. These rioters should have been producing prosperity, accord­ing to the new economics, for they were destroying buildings that might be rebuilt, gutting stores of goods that might be replaced, even making jobs by creating new "needs" that would be met. (The new economics has taught for years that the basic problem in America is to stimulate demand.) The force and violence employed in the Battle in the Streets was an imitation of that which govern­ment has been employing for years in its war on the poor.

For years, reformers have pro­claimed that their programs fell short of attaining their ends only because they were too timid, were not carried out in a sufficiently thorough fashion. The Battle in the Streets tests that hypothesis. There are not half-way measures there. Rioters do not wait for bull­dozers to level buildings. They do not wait for property to be ac­quired by the way of the exercise of the power of eminent domain. They simply take it over for de­struction. They do not wait for goods to be taken by taxation and given to the poor. They simply confiscate them by looting. If pros­perity can be achieved by force, it should be more readily attained by massive and direct force. Many of the reformers do not appear to misunderstand the import of all this; they stand by today calling for the appropriation of tens of billions of dollars for spending in these areas demolished by rioters, and other areas of like character.

Even the assaults upon firemen, police, and the armed forces brought into the field of combat are not hard to understand. There are overtones in this of the ex­pression of hatred for authority, a hatred that may contain in it glimmers of understanding of how deeply government has failed the poor by making war on them. More directly, though, the police, particularly, are the representa­tives of traditional authority, charged with the task of protect­ing life and property. This is an assault upon property, and police must not be permitted to exercise their assigned duties. In this cir­cumscription of the power of the police, the rioters are imitating in a more direct fashion what the Federal courts have been doing for some time now.

It is true that the Battlers in the Streets are making war on themselves. In this, too, they are following the pattern set by the government. The government has set citizen against citizen and group against group. It has also turned one aspect of a man against his other aspects, as in the case of the war on the consumer. Those who have taken to the streets demonstrate this same behavior. It is quite likely that sometimes a man may have thrown a molotov cocktail which set fire to a dry cleaning establishment where some of his own clothes were.

This interpretation is not at odds with the fact that the Battle in the Streets has been spurred by agitators, that various and sundry radicals have fomented it. Instead, these agitators share much com­mon ground with the reformers who have promoted the govern­ment programs. Both have wished to transform society by force; the reformers would do so by using formal government; the agitators pursue their course more directly. Of course, those in control of gov­ernment cannot and do not con­done rioting and insurrection, but so far as they reward it by gov­ernment appropriations into the ruined areas, as they did at Watts, they show a remarkable affinity with the aims of the rioters….

Who Are the Victors?

Who are the victors in this civil war that results from the war on the poor? This is not the story of the victors, so the question will not be dwelt upon here. But there are many who have benefited and do presently benefit from the gov­ernment intervention. Many have a vested interest in the continua­tion of the government programs. It will only be necessary to allude to some of them.

Among the victors, thus far, have been the politicians. These range from Presidents of the United States to the local favor dispensers. Many politicians have become accustomed over a good many years now to getting elected to office by promising favors to various interest groups, to farm­ers, to labor unions, to the aged, to the young, and so on. In effect, they have become used to buying their way into office by promising benefits bought with the tax mon­ey of all of us. For those who de­sire power, there seems to be no better way to attain it than to cater to one of the basest of hu­man desires, the desire to get something for nothing. It does not seem to matter that the bulk of the population does not and can­not benefit from such practices.

The beneficiaries are numerous even so, but let it suffice that they simply be named: the bureaucrats who dispense the favors and wield the power, the labor union leaders who enjoy both munificent salaries and prestigious positions, the cor­porations that get government con­tracts, the builders who get inex­pensive land in strategic locations by way of urban renewal, estab­lished businesses that benefit from the blocking of potential competi­tors by government restrictions, the holders of franchises, monopo­lies, and licenses, the farmers who are growing wealthy by way of government subsidies, the mem­bers of labor unions who are able to keep their jobs at higher wages, the intellectuals who provide grist for the programmatic mills, and all the others who have good in comes or prestigious positions in consequence of the intervention. When all these are joined with the millions upon millions who are now dependent upon government for subsistence (all those receiv­ing welfare payments, farm pay­ments, subsidies, social security, unemployment compensation, and so forth), who believe themselves helpless without the government aid (and have been made nearly so by the intervention), their number is probably sufficient to form electoral majorities.

This is not to imply that the victors are necessarily conscious that they are victors over the poor. There is every reason to believe that many of the politicians (and those who succor them) really wish to help the poor. In any case, charity demands that we give them the benefit of any doubt and believe that even now many of them do not know how badly awry their programs have gone.

A Divisive Force

The War on Poverty, then, has not resulted in the conquest of poverty. It has, instead, resulted in the conquest of the poor. Gov­ernment has divided the populace into contending factions, has em­powered portions of the people against others, has lent its force to the cause of some and turned its back upon others. The incipi­ent civil war that is an inevitable result of such policies has finally broken out in the streets. Strictly speaking there are not yet victors, for the war is not over: there are only those who have been advan­taged by the conflict. Even so, it is surely time for the work of pacification.

Those who have been contend­ing are not natural enemies. Farm­ers are not at odds with urban dwellers by nature, capital with labor, government with the poor. The Battle in the Streets is not even a logical consequence of or response to poverty. On the con­trary, the various peoples in a country complement one another; specialization of function requires and begets cooperation; the ap­propriate response to poverty is not destruction, but economy. The work of reconciliation proceeds from this understanding….

Programs that were supposed to aid the poor have harmed them instead. Justice with eyes wide open has discriminated among the citizenry, has selected farmers for special ministrations, has looked with favor upon labor unions, has bestowed privileges upon some businesses, has gone with its bag of goodies into the hearts of the cities. Mercy blinded has taken from the poor to give to the rich, has taxed the generality of people to pay subsidies to wealthy farm­ers, has driven workers away from the gates, has priced the poor, the unskilled, the disabled, out of the labor market, has driven small businesses to the wall, and has forced the urban poor from their habitations to make room for multilane highways and high-rise apartments.

Cruelest and most deceptive of all, government has raised false hopes and expectations of the good which it claims can be done by its methods. The employment of force was supposed to benefit the poor; Mercy could take up guns, so the program implied. Some of the poor have taken the message to heart. They have taken up weapons to improve their own well-being. The Battle in the Streets is the dra­matic result. In consequence, the poor are poorer; they have only preyed upon one another.

The Unethical Is the Inexpedient

What was inexpedient turned out to be also unethical. To turn it around, and get first things first, the unethical is also inexpedient. It is unjust to take from the poor to give to the rich. It is equally unjust to take from the rich to give to the poor. But even if it were just to take from the rich to give to the poor, governments do not operate in that fashion. They take from all producers, rich and poor alike, to give to nonproduc­ers, at best. Nor can it be other­wise. The resources of the wealthy would soon be exhausted, if some devices could be found to appro­priate these alone. In that case, we should all be impoverished, how­ever, for the distributed wealth would be used to vie for the de­creasing supply of goods that would result from the decline of investment.

There is no hope for the poor from government intervention. The reason is that government is not the right instrument for in­creasing wealth. The results of the massive governmental programs thus far illustrate the fallacy. Large numbers of the poor have been made perpetually unproduc­tive, dependent upon government, and perennially poor. To pay for this, the productive have been re­duced to servility to government by way of taxation and regulation, and those who would rise by their own efforts have had the way made harder.

Nor is this failure due simply to corruption, malfeasance, or even the tendency of men to pervert the programs to their own ends (the latter being not only a possibility but a virtual certainty)….

The Poor Need Economy

The political shenanigans of petty local politicians grasping for War on Poverty funds would no doubt make interesting reading. But to focus on these would be to suggest that the programs have failed because of incidental cor­ruption. It would leave the way open to hope that with better ad­ministration and some improve­ments the programs would work. There is no reason to suppose that this is the case.

The programs have failed be­cause they misconstrue the nature of government and economy. They have attempted to employ force to produce economic results. Men cannot be forced to be economical; yet when left to their own devices, men will be economical. Economy results from willing effort, from willing innovation, from willing exchange, from free decisions, and from voluntary combinations. Gov­ernment action tends to produce rigidity, to keep things the way they are, to make it much more difficult for the poor to improve their lot. It raises costs, raises prices, produces surpluses—goods that will not be bought at the prices it decrees—, causes unem­ployment, reduces competition, re­moves opportunities, and results in shortages, depending upon how it is employed. The poor cannot benefit from all this because they need economy.

The war upon the poor will be ended when the numerous inter­ventions are ended. This is of a piece with what is needed for the reconstruction. Governments must be restricted to their proper sphere in order that the poor, as well as everyone else, may be freed to improve their own condition, if that is their desire. To suppose that the poor would be clever enough and have the perseverance to manipulate government to their advantage is to suppose something contrary to what has ever been or is ever likely to be, in any case. If the poor were that clever and per­sistent they would not remain poor for long in any conditions. Gov­ernment intervention has ever been a device to give additional advantages to those who already have power and wealth. It was an illusion that it could be otherwise. The fact that wealthy men pre­dominate as national political fig­ures today and advance these strange welfarist notions—such figures as the Kennedys, the Roos­evelts, the Rockefellers, and so on—should have alerted us to the power quest that is involved.

Hope Lies in Freedom

The hope of the poor lies with freedom. The politics of expansive government is not for the poor. Politics is the arena of influence peddlers, of batteries of lawyers, of five-per-centers, of special tax exemptions for oil millionaires, of cost-plus contracts, of those who have the inside track, of dema­gogues who feather their nests at public expense, of the powers that be. The poor have neither the re­sources, the background and edu­cation, nor the time to spend on such quests. They cannot compete in this arena; at best, they will only get some of the crumbs that fall from the table; at worst, they will have television sets with which to view the political spec­tacles put on with their money.

The hope of the poor lies with restricted and limited government. It is indeed a work of reconstruc­tion to regain this condition. Lim­ited government and free men was once the great promise of Ameri­can life. The Founders of these United States constructed a gov­ernment of separated and balanced powers so that hungry politicians might vie for power against one another rather than the populace. They limited governments and specified their powers so that men might compete in an arena of free­dom rather than contest for polit­ical spoils, so that industrious men might have the fruits of their la­bor, and so that the indolent might be spurred to labor by their needs. And they perceived that it was better for all that charity proceed from those who were concerned than that the poor receive gov­ernment favors exacted from the industrious by power-seeking pol­iticians….

There is hope for the poor. There is hope for them in the res­toration of liberty and their re­turn to useful service, to bringing forth crops from the soil, to mak­ing and purveying goods, to pro­viding much needed services. When the disaffected poor learn again to serve rather than to bribe, their labors will result in providing healing ministrations to society.

America’s Greatest Gift

Let this work show, too, that it is not only interventionists who are concerned with the poor. Certainly, those who entertain grave doubts about the beneficence of government programs may at the same time be deeply concerned about the poor. That parent who does everything for his child does not love more than others; he is only more indulgent. He is actu­ally denying the child experiences that would lead to much needed progress toward being able to look after himself. Love not only gives generously when the occasion war­rants but also withholds wisely for the good of another. The great­est gift that America can bestow upon the poor is that liberty by which they may receive the fruits of their toil. The promise of Amer­ican life, as Thomas Jefferson put it in 1801, is "a wise and frugal Government, which… shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned."


November 1969

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