Book Review: Libertarian War on Poverty (2012)

Repairing the ladder of upward mobility
by Daniel K. Robin

Libertarian War on PovertyThis is a very good book that deserves to be read… by people inside the freedom movement and out. It’s crisply well-written and the thinking flows strongly and comfortably. Those who are neophytes in economics or who, like me, have little affinity for it, will love the clarity with which it presents solutions to economic problems and subproblems. Poverty is after all an economic issue: not having enough useful stuff to meet one’s needs. The author, through substantial and relevant research, gives us common-sense public policies, that unfortunately are still uncommon.

I met the author at the Libertarian Party of Michigan convention in June 2012. Daniel Robin is a Chicago-area attorney and I believe a first-time author, self-published.

Most modern libertarians do not dig very deep when the subject is how to help the poor, though we have risen far beyond the insensitivity of our early days when former Ayn Rand superacolyte, Barbara Branden—bless her later-manifested true more compassionate heart—uttered the classic Objectivist[1] response to a query on providing for those in need: “If you want to help them you will not be stopped.” And to my discredit and many of my boy-Objectivist peers at the time, Ms. Branden’s comments seemed exactly right. [Our big black beast in those days was altruism as Rand defined it, and by answering as Branden did she deflated the moral intimidation against rational egoism embedded in the question.]

Fact is, most of us are sensitive and caring to anyone who suffers misfortune. And we were back then, as well. As the people of the libertarian movement matured, along with the movement itself, we came to embrace more wholistic feelings of good will toward our fellow humans. Perhaps a watershed moment in geologic time that illustrates the humanistic shift, at least within the Libertarian Party and its offshoots, is when diminutive Mary J. Ruwart wrote the titanic Healing Our World, then stepped up to the podium in national LP conventions in the 1990s and 2000s as a guest or keynote speaker time after time. The kinder, gentler party.

Mary’s message: let’s first show we care about people, then show how liberty make things better for them. She represented a significant departure from the analytic judgmentalism that characterized leading LP activism of the day. Mr. Robin’s book is written in the Ruwart vein. In fact, I believe he credits his central metaphor of the ladder of economic opportunity with rungs broken by government coercion to Dr. Ruwart’s work. It’s a great metaphor, as revealed here in a paragraph on minimum wage laws:

Throughout history, on-the-job training has been an effective way for workers to enhance their productivity and thus increase their income. Those in the greatest need for on-the-job training today are the ones most at risk of exclusion from the work force by effects of the minimum wage laws. At any given wage, employers ordinarily will hire the individual who has the most work experience. If the employer is forced to pay $7 an hour, applicants with job skills worth $2 or $3 an hour will not get the job. Dr. Mary J. Ruwart compares job seeking in this situation to trying to climb a ladder with the bottom three rungs missing. Sure, some lucky [fewer] people will be tall enough to step up to the fourth rung, but many will be left behind…. — page 32.

Libertarian War on Poverty is well-researched and thorough. Robin covers the bases, from labor policies that destroy the rungs to related areas of state compulsion that amount in whole to a systematic war on the poor:

  • education policy
  • immigration restrictions
  • the War on Drugs
  • occupational licensure and regulation
  • health care economics
  • destruction of savings
  • housing obstacles

The author is well-versed in Adam Smith, and communicates his knowledge of that great master in concise, image-rich prose that makes the principles easy to understand in the immediate context of discussion.[2] To me, that ease of explanation, making subjects interesting that I normally find tedious, is a solid positive for reading the book. You can make an impact with it down at the city council meetings or with your state legislatures: freedom works, for the poor especially, and here’s what you can do now. So get with it.

The thrust from Robin’s Chapter 1 “Why Help the Poor?:”

Our moral and religious traditions teach us that it is important to help people in need. But charity wanes or goes sour if we provide help when we don’t believe the recipients deserve it, or if we provide help without showing respect for the dignity of recipients…. People are capable, self-reliant, rich in potential, and able to make a positive contribution to their own well-being and to the common good. Efforts to help people realize their potential should be based on these themes and that optimistic view—and on a commitment to the environment of freedom in which efforts to help can lead to substantial gains. — page 6

Then the kicker:

In our society, in our time, nothing could be more charitable, nothing could be more flexible, nothing more respectful of the dignity of the individual than to get out of the individual’s way and enable him to provide for himself and his family.

Which is a rung up in public relations speak from “If you want to help them you won’t be stopped.” Though not quite in league with “I’m writing a check.” The ultimate source of public assistance is the public, i.e. you. As Russell Means put it so eloquently: “You don’t need government when you have one another.” So take a few hours and read Libertarian War on Poverty, send it to your local media, to your state and federal legislators, and talk amongst yourselves.

Caveats: Both minor in the grand scheme of the cosmos. 1) As most other libertarian message books, LWOP neglects the contribution to the problem of poverty from what I have termed ‘cabalization'[3] or the profound antihuman effects of systematic economic depredation via government for the benefit of a few power sick men—e.g. calculate the wealth lost from war and debt by the Western financial oligarchy courtesy of its central banks—and 2) the book exhibits a number of significant copyediting mistakes, not so many that they distract, but more than ought to exist in an important work (for example, on SunFLOWerthe back cover we see “as if they bear a permenant disease…”). [Note: Daniel, my day job is editing and alternative publishing, and for a modest fee w/quick turnaround, I can remedy such mistakes for you in the next edition, contact me here.]

LWOP: Good stuff, check it out, you’ll learn something, comment and share.

[1] Objectivism is the self-identified philosophy of Ayn Rand.

[2] One of these days, yours truly is going to sit down and read The Wealth of Nations. I think that makes sense in light of my idea that any legislator or executive in American government prove his qualifications before taking office by passing a test on Smith’s magnum opus, as well as the US Constitution.

[3] Cabalization is covered in Chapter 5 of my best-selling book The Truth Torpedo.

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