Federal government and the link to poverty

Elliot Engstrom Lead Counsel, Civitas Institute
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Often times when conservatives speak of the government treating the rich differently than the poor, the discussion is framed around taxes and welfare, with the argument being made that the government forces the highest earners to pay a massive percentage of all taxes, both punishing success and stifling overall economic productivity and making it all the more difficult for anyone not in the upper echelons to accumulate wealth for themselves. I sincerely hope that I have not constructed a straw man version of this common conservative argument, as I certainly think it has a great deal of credibility. However, I also would like to draw attention to the fact that while government loots the rich through the direct means of taxation, it likewise loots the poor, albeit through a different set of means that is much more difficult to recognize, and thus much more difficult to counteract.

While looting the wealthy can often be construed as some kind of humanitarian effort to aid the poor, looting the impoverished is a much more difficult enterprise to disguise as a moral good. Thus we will find that the government’s means of taking money from the poor are much more difficult to detect, comprehend, and eliminate than the means of direct taxation that is used to extract money from the wealthier members of society.

The dollar in which the majority of Americans receive their wages or salary has no absolute, set value. We see this in the fact that the value of the dollar is constantly fluctuating when compared to gold, silver, or the currencies of other nations (which are all constantly fluctuating in value themselves). “Value” is determined by a wide range of factors, but is based in the fact that human beings are all rational maximizers who are all trying to get what they want while expending the least amount of resources possible to do so. The occurrence of this phenomenon in the mind of every single individual economic actor coordinates the price system in a free-market economy.

A given worker making $10.50/hour may see himself as bringing home a constant source of income. However, this is not the case at all due to the constantly shifting value of the dollar. Even in a free and unhindered market, the value of the dollars that this worker takes home each day would fluctuate based on factors like how much liquid currency was actually in existence in the market, how many resources had been invested in banks or stocks, and what amount of resources had been converted into physical capital or products. In the end, the dollar itself has all the value of a flimsy piece of cotton paper—it derives its true value from the productive activities of economic actors who use it as a medium of exchange. In other words, the dollar is a widely accepted “I.O.U.” This would be the case even in the freest of economies. Values of commodities and currencies are always changing based on the effectual demand and effectual supply of the moment.

But, as we all know, we live in anything but a free and unhindered economy. Our supposed “free market” is criss-crossed with a Federal Reserve System that manipulates the value of the dollar at will, a corporate welfare system that socializes the losses of corporations at the expense of the rest of society, and law enforcement policies that weigh the heaviest on those who do not have the time or resources to easily deal with court and lawyer fees, jury duty, and detainments prior to trial, not to mention the fact that the War on Drugs does substantially greater damage to the lower classes of American society than it does good, particularly when speaking of poor African-Americans.

And here’s the scary part—this was all the case before the bailouts and stimulus package that George Bush began and Barack Obama continued and amplified. Not only do these bailouts threaten to massively inflate our currency, spelling disaster for those whose livelihood is based in hourly wages paid in dollars, but it also directly took from all of society, not just the rich or the poor, and gave to a few select corporate entities such as Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo. We know this because every new dollar created by the government in the stimulus plan detracted from the value of every dollar already existing in the pre-stimulus economy (or will do so when released into the economy).

Does this sound confusing? It should, because it is, and that’s exactly how the federal government likes it.

While the federal government would tell us that they protect the poor from the exploitation of the rich, economics would tell us that it is in the fact that federal government itself that is the greatest exploiter of our nation’s impoverished, and it is this institution that in fact facilitates much of the disparity in wealth between wealthy national corporations and impoverished local communities.

Those of the small-government mindset who wish to rally more people to their cause should not go about proclaiming that we should be immediately getting rid of affirmative action and welfare for the poor, but instead should be putting forth a rallying cry against corporate welfare, an inflation-minded Federal Reserve System, and a law enforcement system whose economic penalties weigh heaviest on those with the least money in their savings accounts. It does not have to be out of selfishness that we advocate for a reduction of the federal nanny-state.  It can, and should, instead be out of a concern for the poverty and destruction of wealth that is directly generated by this institution’s misguided policies.

Elliot Engstrom is a senior French major at Wake Forest University, and aside from his schoolwork blogs for Young Americans for Liberty and writes at his own Web site, Rethinking the State.