Whether hard or soft, the Left operates through a few core tactics. One is “by any means necessary.” Double standards, “big lies,” violence, censorship––all are justified by the alleged nobility of their goals like “equity” and “social justice.” The other is the precept “You never want to let a serious crisis go to waste,” as Barack Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel put it, since a crisis is “an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.”
And if there isn’t a “serious crisis”? Manufacture one by employing the tactics of “any means necessary.” If statistical data tell us that unarmed black men are not disproportionately and wantonly being gunned down by the police, just keep yelling the “big lie” that they are, while violently rioting, assaulting, and looting and burning businesses for the television and iPhone cameras. Shake down corporate hegemons for danegeld, intimidate mayors and governors into defunding police departments, demonize cops into retirement, and soon you can do things you “could not do before,” like hiring prosecutors who release violent criminals back on the streets to keep on killing and maiming.
Not wasting manufactured “crises” has been the progressives’ most successful methods for expanding and concentrating the power of the federal Leviathan.
One of the oldest “crises” the progressive technocrats have exploited for over half a century is “poverty,” especially “child poverty.” Last year, for example, Democrat Congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer promised that expanding the tax credit for children would “cut child poverty in half,” and Biden repeated that promise.
In fact, as Phil Gramm and John Early pointed out recently, the poverty rate barely budged from 2020’, and remained higher than 2019’s, “even though government spent an extra $2.6 trillion on transfer payments in 2020-21.” And don’t forget, this largesse is added to the $23 trillion tab run up since Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty” legislation of 1964. Worse, all that money has lowered official poverty rates by only a few points at best from 1964’s rate. So why do we continue this dysfunctional approach?
Obviously, factional political leverage finds a phrase like “child poverty” useful for ginning up emotion at the expense of rational thought and empirical evidence, a feature of democracies since ancient Athens. Progressives looking for crises to exploit in order to expand the size and scope of technocratic federal agencies find such emotionalism a powerful weapon to use against critics.
Hence the metaphorical use of “war” regularly applied to such “crises.” This dubious analogy springs from progressive William James’ 1910 coinage “the moral equivalent of war,” which turns every alleged crisis into a matter of life and death, and “an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before,” such as violating the limits that the Constitution puts on the power of the government.
James’ expression, then, not only heightens the seriousness of the crisis, but also justifies expanding the government’s power in order to resolve it–– just as historically during times of real war we’ve seen civil rights violated and other constitutional guardrails weakened. Worse yet, this expansion of government that attends these reactions to a crisis usually leads to making permanent the growth of government power.
As a result, we’ve seen over the last 50 years that a crisis like “poverty” leads to more and bigger bureaucracies that are vulnerable to “professional deformation,” the tendency of large, hierarchically organized agencies not directly accountable to voters or the market to focus on the power of the bureaucracy at the expense of the function it was created to perform. Institutional orthodoxy and fossilized received wisdom trump empirical evidence and stifle creativity and dissent. Such agencies can fail serially for decades, only rarely facing budget cuts or restructuring, let alone elimination. They are, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan’s gag, “The closest thing to eternal life on earth.”
In the case of “poverty,” in our times this dysfunction is empowered by the lack of real-world experience with poverty on the part of the “experts” and functionaries who determine and carry out policy, few of whom these days have any personal experience with actual poverty. Such experience usually comes from having lived among the poor, rather than just researching them or cataloguing their often subjective self-reports on surveys.
For example, those who have lived, as I did growing up, among the poor know that contrary to modernity’s reliance on external material causes, the individual’s character, virtue, and choices often contribute to his predicament. The squalor that frequently accompanies poverty is not forced on people. Being poor is no excuse for keeping a messy and dirty home. Even a dirt floor can be swept, and the scrawniest yard kept clear of trash. In my experience, for every poor person that poverty has driven to crime, addiction, and neglect of their children, there are a thousand whose strength of character, faith, and families have saved them and their children from such a fate.
But our materialist sensibility means that personal agency and responsibility don’t exist for the clients of our tutelary welfare bureaucracies. Bringing up those virtues like self-responsibility and impulse control is “blaming the victim,” a heinous crime useful for demonizing critics of redistributive big government. The “soft despotism” that progressivism has created prefers people who are helpless and dependent on the nanny-state rather than their own characters or faith or traditional wisdom.
For example, we’ve known for centuries that giving people something for nothing destroys character and dooms them to permanent dependency, not to mention destructive behaviors like drug-use and alcoholism. But for progressives that’s just collateral damage in the “war” to eliminate poverty.
Of course, the “poverty” industry dismisses such talk as heartless and uncaring, the typical cruelty of “semi-fascist” and “racist” conservatives. But it’s even worse than you think. The “poverty line,” the level of income below which people are deemed to be “living in poverty,” is a statistical artifact, not a consequence of empirical evidence. Gramm and Early explain how this “poverty” is confected:
The Census Bureau fails to count two-thirds of all government transfer payments to households in the income numbers it uses to calculate not only poverty levels but also income inequality and income growth. In addition to not counting refundable tax credits, which are paid by checks from the U.S. Treasury, the official Census Bureau measure doesn’t count food stamps, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, rent subsidies, energy subsidies and health-insurance subsidies under the Affordable Care Act. In total, benefits provided in more than 100 other federal, state and local transfer payments aren’t counted by the Census Bureau as income to the recipients. . . . If the Census Bureau had included the missing $1.9 trillion in transfer payments, child poverty would have been only 3.2% in 2017, compared with the official rate of 17.5%. Government transfer payments that were distributed in 2017 had already cut child poverty by 82%.
That’s a lot of money to spend on destroying people’s character and virtues. Nor is it just the so-called poor who are damaged by feckless policy. We currently have 6 million people unemployed, at the same time there are nearly 11.5 million unfilled jobs. The work ethic that created the biggest economy in the world is atrophying because people are being paid taxpayers’ money not to work, even as our national debt has grown bigger than our national income––and that’s not counting the between $330 and $390 billion that Biden’s student-loan forgiveness program will cost.
The progressive redistributionist regime that promotes “robbing selected Peter to pay collective Paul” insidiously limits freedom as it grows more tyrannical. For as the Greek historian Polybius wrote 2400 years ago, once “the people have become accustomed to feed at the expense of others, and their prospects of winning a livelihood depend upon the property of their neighbors, and as soon as they find a leader who is sufficiently ambitious and daring . . . they introduce a regime based on violence.” At that point, tyranny replaces constitutional government.
Looking at the abuse of power by the FBI and DOJ, the militarization of the IRS, the attacks on the Bill of Rights, and the abuse of government emergency powers continuing after the covid crisis has peaked, makes it clear that progressives and leftists have taken “we the people” well down the road to repeating that fate.