A Reviewer's Notebook - 1969/11

The War on the Poor

If the American Republic is to go down the drain, it will be be­cause 200,000,000 people, give or take a few hundred thousand, are taken in by the "post hoc, ergo propter hoc," or "after this, there­fore because of this," way of look­ing at everything that has been happening since the days of the New Deal. Our country is obvi­ously prosperous: it sends men to the moon, it throws money away all over the globe; it enables 400,­000 kids to idle away their time sitting around a Catskill pasture and soaking up rock music and marijuana fumes; it keeps a big population in college so that they may take their exercise in demon­strating and in throwing the deans downstairs. So, since the New Deal response to the 1929 depression came first in time, this response  —and the many extensions of the "government aid" principle that have followed—must, so the argument goes, be the cause of all sub­sequent good things.

"Post hoc, ergo propter hoc," however, can be a thunderous fal­lacy for several reasons. For one thing, it involves cutting up time into little pieces, and arbitrarily picking one point as the begin­ning. A longer view of things might insist that contemporary American prosperity is due to nineteenth century inventions, or the thinking of the Founding Fa­thers, or empty land, or the genes of the immigrants, or the decline of mercantilism, or a continental free trade area. Taking the long view, one is perfectly justified in saying that we are prosperous be­cause our fundamental economic vitality has enabled us to triumph over the government interventions that have come thick and fast since 1933.

In his The War on the Poor (Arlington House, $5.95), Clarence B. Carson chooses a contrari­ous "after this, therefore in spite of this" approach. He sustains his thesis—that the things the poli­ticians try to do for the poor are achieved at the expense of the poor—with brilliant logic and with irrefutable statistics. Such is the spell of the post-New Deal "propter hoc" fallacy, however, that Professor Carson’s sanity will be regarded in most "intellectual" quarters as a quaint form of mad­ness.

The Death of Agriculture

Professor Carson was born on a red-dirt farm in Alabama, and he vividly recalls Franklin D. Roose­velt’s promises to "restore the bal­ance between rural and urban dwellers." He remembers how his neighbors in the early thirties wrestled with the boll weevil, the grub worms, the floods, and the drought. Even so, "cultivated farm followed cultivated farm" in those days. In the middle thirties came the government programs: "the cotton allotments, the soil conser­vation checks, the crop loans, vague talk of parity and higher prices and soil improvement." Yet, as Professor Carson saw with his own eyes, the more the govern­ment "helped" the farmers, the more desperate became the situa­tion of agriculture. The sons left the farms to work at sawmills, the daughters to clerk in stores. "There was nothing dramatic about the death of agriculture there," says Dr. Carson, "it was more like a lingering and wasting sickness."

When he went to college and learned something about econom­ics, Dr. Carson discovered that the government programs forced "marginal" farmers to become "submarginal." Years later, when, as an economic historian, he be­gan to assemble the statistics, he could see how the government aid programs defeated themselves. The big farmers got the most money for "acreage reduction." They put the government largesse into bet­ter fertilizers, better seeds, better labor-saving machinery. The mar­ginal farmers couldn’t keep up in the race. And so today, instead of having 25 per cent of the popu­lation living on farms as in 1933, the figure has been reduced to around 8 per cent.

The drift to the cities would have occurred in any event, but the tempo might have been slowed if the New Deal hadn’t tried to be so "helpful." The ex-farmers, moving into town, clogged a labor market that was already the ob­ject of the government’s "war on the poor." There was the big 1937 drive to build up the unions, with the help of the new labor legisla­tion. But the rise in wages, which came with a one-sided "collective bargaining," was not matched with a corresponding rise in labor productivity. Minimum wage leg­islation came in 1938. Meanwhile, as business made less money, the stock market fell. We had a "de­pression within a depression," and in November, 1938, WPA "make-work" employment reached an all-time high. It was not the New Deal interventions that ended the unemployment of the thirties, it was war orders from an em­battled Europe.

Sacking the Cities

Professor Carson deals with "urban renewal," but his word for it is "sacking the cities." Follow­ing Martin Anderson, he notes that "urban renewal" has actually resulted in a decrease in the num­ber of low-rent housing units available to the poor. It is in the central city slums of today that the "war on the poor" comes full circle. The whirl of the wheel is instructive. It began with the pay­ment to the richer cotton growers to take land out of production. The money went into equipment that did away with the need for the Negro field hand on the acres that were still cultivated. Taking the trail to the Northern cities, the Negro field hand crowded into the slum just as the Federal bulldozer was beginning its devastating work. But opportunity beckoned to the ex-field hand’s children: they could become dope pushers.

After so much irrationality, foisted on an uncomprehending people by politicians whose chief stock in trade is to keep the masses dependent on the state, it is scarcely to be wondered at that we now have irrational battles in the streets, with the slum inhabitants making war on themselves. The government, as Professor Carson puts it, "has set citizen against citizen and group against group." "It is quite likely," so he observes, "that sometimes a man may have thrown a molotov cocktail which set fire to the dry cleaning estab­lishment where some of his own clothes were."

Political Backfire

At the recent Mont Pelerin Con­ference in Venezuela we heard something about "Director’s Law," so-called because Professor Aaron Director of the University of Chi­cago first formulated it. Accord­ing to "Director’s Law," the gov­ernment programs of a middle-class democracy invariably take from the poor (who are less nu­merous) to help the middle-class majority.

Dr. Carson restates Director’s Law in his own way. "To suppose that the poor would be clever enough," he says, "to manipulate government to their advantage is to suppose something contrary to what has ever been or is ever likely to be…. 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…. 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."

As Dr. Carson says, the hope of the poor lies with putting hob­bles on expansive government. Rescuing Andrew Jackson from the fell clutch of Arthur Schle­singer, who tried to make Jackson over into a New Dealer, Dr. Car­son quotes Old Hickory as saying that the humble "have neither the time nor the means of securing… favors to themselves." The war on the poor will end when limited government is restored.