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Loving the Poor and Compassionate Conservatism


One of the biggest con jobs in American political history has been that which the Democratic Party has perpetrated on the American people. To justify the existence of the socialistic welfare state, along with the $1.7 trillion in taxation needed to fund it, Democrats proclaim, “We love the poor, the needy, and the disadvantaged.” And whenever anyone opposes some Democratic social welfare program, he is immediately hit with the following accusation: “You’re a racist, and you hate the poor.”

And now Republicans are jumping onto the “help the poor” bandwagon with what they are terming “compassionate conservatism.” It’s not yet clear exactly what they mean by that (perhaps a kinder, more benevolent ATF, IRS, and INS), but apparently there’s now going to be heated competition as to who loves the poor more — Democrats or Republicans.

I myself fell for the Democratic scam. When I was growing up, my father was active in Democratic Party politics in my hometown of Laredo, Texas. When I was in grade school and junior high school, I worked in the presidential campaigns of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, even shaking hands with LBJ at a political barbecue at his ranch in Johnson City, Texas. (You’ll probably also be interested to know that I was rewarded for my efforts with an invitation from the first lady, Lady Bird Johnson, to participate in a White House ceremony for her America Beautification Campaign.)

When I returned to Laredo to practice law, I worked in Democratic campaigns for governor, mayor, and district judge, served on the Laredo Legal Aid Society board of trustees, and was the local representative for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

I had no reason to question that government should be used to assist those at the bottom of the economic ladder of life. It actually appalled me whenever any Republican would suggest that government programs for the needy should be cut. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to cut any assistance to the poor.

One day, a doubt started to gnaw at me. After I returned to Laredo, I asked the local federal judge to appoint me to represent Mexican aliens who had been charged with illegal entry into the United States. As I was interviewing some of my clients at the illegal-alien detention center outside town, a question popped into my mind: “If Democrats love the poor so much, why are they doing this to these people?”

After all, I thought, if people have a genuine love for the poor, they usually don’t limit their love to the poor who vote or to the poor who are Americans. Rather, genuine love for others is usually universal in nature, that is, it transcends votes and nationalities. Yet here were people who were among the poorest people in the world, and they were in jail because of laws passed by Democrats, who controlled both houses of Congress. (Of course, Republicans overwhelmingly approved of the jailings, but that, of course, didn’t surprise me.)

The illegal aliens were not thieves, burglars, robbers, or rapists. They weren’t even drug dealers. They were men who had simply crossed a border in search of work, attempting to sustain or improve their lives by working for someone who wished to hire them. They were family-oriented, often sending a large percentage of their earnings home to help their parents, wives, or children. They were among the hardest-working people in society. They were religious. They were honest. In short, they were among the finest human beings you’d ever meet. And they were languishing in a South Texas jail on orders of both Democrats and Republicans.

As I watched the prisoners walk around the detention center with dazed looks on their faces, in their khaki pants and white T-shirts, doubts about Democrats’ love for “the poor, the needy, and the disadvantaged” began to creep into my mind. And my doubts were not resolved when I discussed the matter with my Democratic friends. There was always indifference. rather than anger or outrage, over what our government was doing to these good and honorable people from the Republic of Mexico.

Soon thereafter, I discovered libertarianism and realized how wrong I had been to believe that the socialistic welfare state benefited the poor. I realized that both Democrats and Republicans, in the name of “helping the poor,” had actually been waging war against them.

Take, for example, the minimum wage, a favorite political device that both Democrats and Republicans use to show how much they love the poor, the needy, and disadvantaged. They pass a law that requires employers to pay a legally established minimum wage of $5 an hour. The law, however, does not require that people be hired at that rate. It simply says that if an employer hires a person, he must pay the legally established minimum.

But people enter into contracts only if they perceive that what they are getting is more valuable to them than what they are giving up. If a person hires someone at $5, that means that he values the person’s labor more than he values the $5. If he values the $5 more than the labor, he won’t hire the person.

So, what happens to a person whose labor is valued at $4 an hour in the marketplace? He’s locked out of the labor market as effectively as if a law had been passed prohibiting him from working. Thus, he sits idle because of the Democratic-Republican “love for the poor” that is supposedly reflected by the passage of the minimum-wage law.

Or suppose someone at the bottom of the economic ladder wants to start a new business and hire 10 of his friends at $2 an hour — and suppose that the friends are willing to work at that rate. It can’t be done. It’s illegal. And the Department of Labor, one of those thousands of “love the poor” government agencies, will take the necessary steps to punish severely the payment of the illegal wage, thereby crushing the upstart business out of existence.

And what happens to the people who are shut out of the labor market with the minimum wage? They are told by their Democratic and Republican caretakers who love them so much: “We’re sorry, but unemployment is part of America’s capitalist system. Don’t worry though, because we’re going to take care of you with welfare, public housing, and food stamps, because we love you.”

I was once the attorney for a young couple living in La Colonia Guadalupe, the first public housing project built in Laredo (in large part owing to efforts of my grandfather!). The couple told me that if they made too much money, the public housing authorities would kick them out of their house. Thus, it was difficult for them to accumulate enough of a nest egg to move out and purchase a house. And it was very tempting for them to stay and languish in the public housing project, even if they knew they would never become rich. I thought to myself: “What a great way for Democrats to love the poor — by keeping them poor and dependent on the Democratic political machine.”

Look at the drug war that both Democrats and Republicans have waged for decades. How can this horribly immoral and destructive war be reconciled with loving the poor? With the burden of the war falling disproportionately on poor African-Americans and Hispanics, it is a war that is terribly racist in nature. How many children of U.S. congressmen who have been caught with drugs are sitting in penitentiaries under drug sentences, especially those with mandatory minimum sentences? Not many, primarily because they are white, privileged kids of government officials. The poor can’t afford high-priced attorneys or even make the big campaign contributions to congressmen, judges, and prosecutors that purchase political influence. Thus, it is the poor, not the rich, who fill our penitentiaries for drug violations.

Moreover, it is the poor who pay the biggest price for asset-forfeiture laws that are now helping to fund governments all across America. Famished for more tax revenues and fearful of tax revolts, cops and prosecutors are now directly seizing people’s cash, cars, and houses without even the semblance or pretense of using the taxation powers of the state to fill the government coffers. The rich have the means to fight the confiscations. The poor do not. Thus, all too often, they must permit their meager savings to be stolen by the governmental robbers simply because they cannot afford to spend the necessary money to retrieve what has already been stolen from them by the cops and prosecutors.

The jugular vein of the socialistic welfare state is, of course, the federal income tax. Relying on the power of the Internal Revenue Service, one of the most terroristic agencies in history, the government confiscates $1.4 trillion to fund the various programs designed to help the poor, the needy, and the disadvantaged.

Yet, by inhibiting those who are attempting to accumulate a nest egg of capital that would enable them to compete against existing businesses, what the income tax really does is help to destroy those at the bottom of the economic ladder. As soon as someone starts to do well in his business, the government takes an ever-increasing share of his earnings, making it more difficult for him to grow and expand his capital base, his labor force, and his market share. Sure, some entrepreneurs are able to break through the financial barrier of the graduated income tax, but for every one of them, there are undoubtedly hundreds who are unable to do so.

The graduated income tax hurts the wage-earning poor as well. As F.A. Harper pointed out in his fabulous little book, Why Wages Rise, it is only through the accumulation of private capital that wages in a society can rise. When workers produce more, they earn more. And the only way they can produce more is by working with better tools and equipment. Workers on a farm using tractors will earn more than those working on a farm using hoes. It is impossible to measure the extent of the damage that the IRS and the income tax have inflicted on the poor people of this country.

Ever since The Future of Freedom Foundation was founded 10 years ago, I have fantasized about giving a speech to people in the middle of Harlem and Watts, explaining to them how they’ve been “had” with all this “love the poor” business from Democrats and Republicans. I’d tell them how the minimum wage, by locking people out of the labor market, is the enemy of the poor; how the drug war, by enabling cops to arbitrarily stop and search automobiles and bust down people’s doors, is the enemy of the poor; how the centers of violence and drugs known as inner-city public schools are the enemy of the poor; how America’s welfare system, which is nothing more than political heroin, is the enemy of the poor; how economic regulations that protect the rich and privileged from competition are the enemy of the poor; and how the massive income taxation that ensures that many of the poor will never get wealthy is the enemy of the poor. I would show them that the best thing that could ever happen to the poor people of this country is the repeal, not the reform, of all these governmental programs and wars.

One of these days, the poor people of this country are going to discover the big political con to which they have been subjected. When that day comes, it will be interesting to see how Democrats and Republicans respond to demands by those at the bottom of the economic ladder to dismantle the government programs that are at the center of the Democratic and Republican “love the poor” and “compassionate conservative” con job.

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    Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.