Some thoughts on poverty, black folks and libertarianism

As I've said, there are certain things that I will never bend on--gay marriage, abortion, the war on drugs etc. I also hate demagogues and bullies, hence my general lukewarm feelings for race-based Affirmative Action, but utter disgust at people who want to use it to score points, while ignoring the broader context of preferences. I utterly despise people who make their living writing reports which disparage the pathology of the black poor, and yet spend no time talking with/living around/having a meal with actual black poor people.

But other things, I'm less rigid on. I arrived in lovely Aspen last night for this Ideas festival. Later today, I will moderate a panel on race and politics, featuring Shelby Steele, Charles Kamasaki, and Richard Thompson Ford. I'll report back on that later. But as for the trip, for most of it, when I wasn't admiring the shocking beauty of the Rockies or reeling over the majesty of "Heaven or Hell" ("So now we see him up in BoJangles/Stranglin a forty ounce, with ten G's worth of gold bangles/Diamonds, what, all up in his face/ With his man's mace, medallions the size of dinner plates" effing incredible), I kept mulling over this rather shocking blog post:

I know, far out in right-field. To put it as plainly as I can: I don't believe in a governmental attempt to engineer a substantively "fair" society through taxation.  I see taxation as a necessary evil to pay for those few social goods that private individuals cannot provide for themselves. And the mode of taxation, in my view, should be as simple and as market-friendly as possible and should treat citizens equally, irrespective of their incomes. I believe in formal equality and a very limited state, not substantive equality and the welfare state.


I'm happy with the government then setting up programs to assist the poor, to provide better education for those at the bottom, safety-net healthcare and better policing. i.e. to gear spending toward social ends that might help the poor the most. These are measurable, practical goods. What I'm not happy with is the assumption that tax policy should really be about redistributing wealth, and engineering substantive economic outcomes. Yes, of course, at lower income levels, a 20 percent flat income tax will be more onerous proportionally than at higher incomes. So what? Why should that even concern a government that is not aiming to socially engineer more substantive equality? and the alternative - skewing taxes to target success - is an absurd set of incentives to put into a growing society.

Am I heartless? I hope not. I just don't believe that having a heart is what government should be about. It's what the rest of us should be about.

I'm not shocked that Andrew wrote this--I'm fairly familiar with his vaguely libertarian politics. I was more shocked by the baldness with which he expressed it. Anyway, my liberalism never originated in a belief that there were a cabal of white oligarchs conspiring to keep the black poor down. More likely, people just protect their interest. Because of how I came up, because I've lived around black poor and working folks all my life, my immediate sympathies are there, and always will be. But my sympathies are moral, or rather emotional, they aren't necessarily logical.

Part of that comes from growing up black in the 80s and 90s--the reason why there's such a liberal voting tilt among black folks is because America's primary organ of conservatism (the GOP) made a choice during my youth to embrace Buchananism, a 51-49 presidential strategy--with black folks necessarily among the 49. As I became politically aware, I made a simple calculus--any ideology whose agents would gleefully exploit America's original wound, could never be a place for me. It was a logical decision--but not a smart one. It meant that while I was always well equipped to do battle on race from a left perspective, and thus reasonably well equipped to do battle on, say, criminal justice, and even on abortion rights, my actual knowledge of the other poles of conservativism are incredibly weak.

I can explain to you why half of what the greater country says about black folks is often wrong. I can invoke history, culture, whatever. I'm built to talk about that. But can I really tell you why and how Bush ruined the economy? Do I really--in explicit detail--understand what has happend with housing market? I was anti-war, but did I really know there were no WMDs?

Anyway what interested me about Andrew's post was that it reflected a way of thinking, and a thesis, that couldn't be more alien to my entire orientation. He pretty plainly spelled out a worldview that I've long taken as the domain of the lecherous and the acquisitive. But I've been bothered lately by much of the reading I've done on government efforts to curb poverty. It's not the efforts themselves, that have bothered--most of them seem fairly smart--as much as the follow-through. We've debated Section 8 quite a bit here, and the thing that stuck with me most, at the end of the discussion, was the relative lack of government oversight. It's almost as if we expected to hand out vouchers and wash our hands of the projects. I've heard a lot about welfare reform, but very little about how it's affected poverty rates. My point is that I keep getting the distinct feeling that Americans, as Andrew suggested, don't actually want their government in the business of trying to pull people out of poverty in any sort of direct way.

And this brings me back to an ugly question--Should they? Why? My deepest held belief about this country is that everyone deserves the right to compete. This is the real root of my gay marriage, abortion rights, war on drugs politics. Gay marriage offers economic benifits--well some. A world in which women don't have access to abortion, is a world where they are--again--dependent on the wealth and benevolence of men. Drug laws not only jail people for long periods of time (over what really is a religious issue) but then they mark them once they get out of prison. But after some sort of base level of competition is ensured, I don't know what I think.

I'm not entirely persuaded by Andrew. His world sounds like Thunderdome to me. And, as I said, my handle on economics is basically too weak to draw any hard conclusions. Also, as I said up top, I don't really have the option of giving my heart to Ron Paul.