Tuesday, January 21, 2014

King's "Economic Equality" Legacy: Not Forgotten, but Tried—and Failed

New Jersey Star-Ledger columnist Barry Carter is another pundit who believes that Martin Luther King's message of economic equality is often missing from the King Day celebrations. Carter writes:

Rev. M. William Howard Jr., pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in Newark, said King’s legacy, much to his regret, has been reduced to a black nationalist holiday rather than a call to action that should address rampant poverty, crime and the widespread problems in education.

King advocated for a massive interventionist state, notes Carter:

Remember, King went to Memphis to support the bargaining rights of garbage workers, which was linked to a larger effort — the Poor People’s Campaign that he was planning for the national mall in Washington, D.C.

King's Poor Peoples Campaign called for such things as "a right to Quality Healthcare, Affordable Housing, Living Wage Jobs, and access to Quality primary, Secondary, and Higher Education. . ."

But King also believed in other things, according to some:

    "Until we (blacks) develop a passion for economic strategy and entrepreneurship, we’re going to be the only group left in America waiting for a bail out," said Rev. DeForest Soaries, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset. "Every immigrant group that has come here has majored in business development. We ought to zoom in on what King was trying to say and that is let’s not forsake the building of our own.
    John Harmon, president of the African-American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey, said King sacrificed his life so that legislation would bring access to employment and business opportunities to move low-income people into the middle class on an ongoing basis.                     Adrian Council, publisher of the Positive Community, a faith-based lifestyle magazine targeting the black community, said we must remember that King was about self-reliance, self-acceptance and self-respect, values that helped blacks historically and culturally.

King obviously believed that massive state intervention into the economy would foster self-improvement and independence. Of course, he was wrong.

I left these comments:

Martin Luther King Jr. is an American paradox. His idealism centered on the promise of the Declaration of Independence. His 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech reaffirmed the Declaration's principles of inalienable individual rights and political equality—meaning, equality before the law—and called on Americans to live up to that promise (which by 1963 had not fully done so).

But his politics went in the opposite direction, toward economic equality, which relies on massive government intervention into the economy and thus is incompatible with political equality. He called this "democratic socialism"—a hybrid system that in his mind constituted a middle ground between communism and capitalism. 

Well, his economic equality message has not been lost. It has been tried on a massive scale, and has failed. It is called the regulatory welfare state, and has, after 50 years, brought not prosperity for all but rising poverty, a struggling middle class, a crippled economy, and a financial crisis and Great Recession. 

The financial crisis is a perfect example of King's economic equality message in action. The genesis of the crisis was the politicians' bipartisan "affordable housing" crusade. Under this crusade—ostensibly designed to help poor people—time-tested, decades-old mortgage lending standards came to be seen as harmful to low-income people. So the government, through its massive regulatory control apparatus, pressured the banks to lower, and eventually destroy, those lending standards, opening the floodgates of sub-prime lending. The rest is history. 

Of course, there were other primary causes, like the easy-money policies of the Fed and a politically corrupted Fannie and Freddie. But the point is, the affordable housing crusade is exactly what King would have supported in the name of economic equality. And, like so many "War on Poverty" initiatives, it led to economic disaster.

King's Dream was the right vision, and that's what we should remember him for. "Self-reliance, self-acceptance and self-respect" are incompatible with the collectivistic, quasi-socialist welfare state. Those individualist principles are only compatible with his Dream. The Declaration upholds inalienable individual rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—and by implication the right to keep and dispose of whatever property one earns—under a government that does not regulate and redistribute but instead protects everyone's rights equally and at all times. Those are the basic principles that give rise to capitalism, and by re-affirming those principles, King affirmed capitalism (though inadvertently, because he didn't understand capitalism). Capitalism doesn't guarantee economic equality, because people are unequal in myriad respects including intelligence, ability, ambition, values, goals, personal life circumstances, and moral virtue. What capitalism does guarantee is that whatever material prosperity and happiness one does earn is his by right.

I believe King is an American hero because of his professed allegiance to the Founders' vision. But King should be honored for those deep-seated beliefs in American ideals, not his objectionable welfare state politics, which contradict those ideals. We should embrace King's Dream of political equality, and abandon his mistaken and unjust mission of economic equality.

Related Reading:

“I Have a Dream”: Martin Luther King Urges Consistency to Founding Principles

Individualism vs. Collectivism: Our Future, Our Choice—Craig Biddle

The Creed of Sacrifice vs. The Land of Liberty—Craig Biddle

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