A half-century of the “War on Poverty” has not yet come close to making poverty in the United States a thing of the past. Even so staunch a defender as Paul Krugman admits that “progress against poverty has nonetheless been disappointingly slow.” Supposedly, poverty is simply so intractable that even a gargantuan initiative cannot be expected to end it. So today is an opportune time to look back on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s call in his 1967 book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? for “the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty” by a distinctly different method.
King noted that the antipoverty programs of the time “proceeded from a premise that poverty is a consequence of multiple evils,” with separate programs each dedicated to individual issues such as education and housing. Though in his view “none of these remedies in itself is unsound,” they “all have a fatal disadvantage” of being “piecemeal,” with their implementation having “fluctuated at the whims of legislative bodies” or been “entangled in bureaucratic stalling.”
The result is that “fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor.” Such single-issue approaches also have “another common failing — they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.” In contrast, King noted that “[w]e are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished” and concluded that he is “now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a … guaranteed income.”
Market anarchists can fully agree with King that “[t]he dignity of the individual will flourish when the decisions concerning his life are in his own hands, when he has the assurance that his income is stable and certain.” An antipoverty program that empowers ordinary people to run their own lives would be both more respectful and more effective than the top-down approach whose often-lauded, less-often-read bible “The Other America” referred unabashedly to the “Negro who must be patronized and taken care of like a child.” King approvingly quotes laissez-faire populist Henry George’s view that creative activity “is not the work of slaves, driven to their task either by the lash of a master or by animal necessities” and thus would be “enormously increased” in a post-poverty society.
A society-wide economic floor could, and should, be sustained by means consistent with free markets. Henry George’s single tax was the culmination of a line of classical liberal proposals to provide all members of society with a share of common natural resources. Self-sustaining voluntary organizations that pool members’ resources have an array of models to draw on, such as the Peace Mission Movement that made enough from nonprofit cooperative businesses to hold daily feasts during the Great Depression. And even a simple repeal of the countless legal barriers to subsistence would go a long way towards establishing a de facto floor. With a combination of such approaches, the abolition of poverty need not take another fifty years.