Getting Your Due in America

As a chiropractic student living on 60 dollars a week (“I’m on food stamps. Don’t hate me for it,” Chicago Sun-Times, March 19), Vicki Jones March hardly fits the stereotype of average or typical “welfare mom.”

March did just what our teachers, coaches and other authority figures tell us to: Admittedly “one of the charmed, lucky ones growing up,” she made exceptional marks in school, finished college, and headed for graduate school. But even at that, she hasn’t been able to escape the stigma that Americans attach to food stamps.

Much is made of food stamps this election season, on the heels of new data that show participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is up. Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich started a media circus when he labeled Barack Obama “the food stamp president,” animating some of the most coarse reflexes surrounding issues of poverty.

American libertarians generally struggle with these issues. There are many reasons for that, but most stem from what are actually very basic misunderstandings about the system we’ve come to refer to as “capitalism.”

Confusing capitalism for a real free market, many libertarians feel driven to disparage welfare recipients like March as “freeloaders,” convinced that welfare is per se a scandal against libertarian principles. The mistake too often made is to abstract the lone issue of something like food stamps away from the broader context that it exists within.

But American libertarians of an earlier age would have been rather surprised — and probably more than a bit piqued — by the equating of capitalism with true laissez faire. And because of that, they had a much better understanding of the role that specific pieces of public policy aimed at the poor actually play.

Market anarchists like Victor Yarros, writing in 1887, went as far as maintaining that “as a class, the capitalists are utterly deprived of the power of effecting anything intrinsically good.” Yarros expressed moral indignation at “charity from the hands of the robber class” of capitalism, and argued that such apparent charity was a mere ruse, “a sugared pill” meant to lull the laboring classes into a false sense of security.

We can draw an analogy between Yarros’s philippic against the charity of the rich and anarchist critiques of the modern welfare state today. In the same way that the philanthropy of the nineteenth century robber barons was little more than a self-congratulatory propitiation of the poor, the measly welfare allotments of the present are meant to assuage the bitter deprivations of the corporate economy.

Libertarians, dedicated to the free market and to individual rights, shouldn’t feel compelled to demonize the poor as beneficiaries of “hand outs.” Rather, if our principles really do demand that people work for what they have, we ought to arraign the largest and most powerful global corporations; it is indeed they who benefit most from the wealth redistribution scheme currently prevailing.

When economic power and resources are unfairly and coercively monopolized through the power of the state, rampant poverty will be the result. Those who genuinely care about the overall cause of human freedom shouldn’t look down on the victims of the system we have today. They should instead should look forward to a truly libertarian age when competition actually does rule the day, without the special privileges for the rich.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory