50 Years of Leonard Read’s ‘Coping with Poverty’

By: Gary Galles

An electoral weakness for anyone who advocates more freedom—i.e., smaller government—is that such a position can be easily demagogued as a selfish threat to many voters. Their continued government benefits depend on the continuation of someone else being forced to pay for them, typically “the rich,” making any rollback in “coercive charity” almost impossible politically. Yet, ironically, the result of such demagoguery is counterproductive, because more freedom offers the best hope–and the only just one–for those struggling economically.

This political tactic is far from new. But one of the most insightful analyses is nearly as old as the War on Poverty. That is Leonard Read’s “Coping With Poverty,” currently celebrating its 50th anniversary, which emphasized the frequent failure of those who favor liberty to make clear that it is also the source of the greatest possible benefits to the poor, as well as other market participants, in his 1968 Accent on the Right.

Millions of Americans…[labor] under the misapprehension that the philosophy of individual liberty is little more than an intellectual apology for entrenched wealth, a rationale for persons who have no concern for those below their own dollar stations.

Most of us who stand for liberty…So firmly embedded in our own minds is the fact that liberty is the poor man’s best ally that we mistakenly assume a like awareness on the part of everyone else. Failing to identify the free market and related institutions with kindly sentiments and noble objectives–such as a better life for the poor–we fumble the ball, so to speak, allowing the opposition to run with it.

The era of free and willing exchange extends, roughly, over [America’s history]. In no other period of history have so many raised themselves out of poverty. Why, then, are those of us who champion free and willing exchange–the only antipoverty device in man’s possession–so seldom credited with relieving the poor man of his burden? Quite frankly, it is because such relief is not the major end we have in view. Freedom and wide-open opportunity for all is the prime objective. But–and this is the point–the fastest possible elimination of poverty is one of the inescapable byproducts of this liberty…And this effect cannot be achieved in any other way.

Unfortunately, when we keep an eye on freedom as our prime objective, we tend to omit…relief from poverty as its by-product…authoritarians grapple on to it and assume the role of the poor man’s champion, all because we have failed to identify the politically attractive by-product of freedom with freedom itself.

It is as much of a delusion to expect that government can end poverty as to expect that the local policeman can make us rich. Government has nothing at all on hand to dispense except what it has garnisheed from taxpayers–what it forcibly subtracts from private ownership…the opposite of capital formation on which productivity rests and on which relief from poverty depends. It is all political give-away–redistribution– with absolutely nothing formative, productive, or creative about it.

But regardless of how faulty their theories, the political authoritarians proclaim themselves the champions of the poor. They have fastened onto the poverty banner and placed themselves in the vanguard of “the down-trodden.” They have gained a considerable following because many people wish to believe in these easy promises and the champions of freedom [have failed] to make their own case.

The popular view [is] that free market practices generally favor those of affluence and generally neglect the interests of the poor…wholly superficial, and false.

When champions of the free market recognize and correct this erroneous concept, they will have found the key to explain how freedom best serves the interests of all–especially the poor. Not until that is done may the poor be expected to look to liberty for their material well-being.

Here is the overlooked fact: The unprecedented practice of freedom in our country has…catapulted many millions of “the masses”–including you and me–into a state of affluence previously unknown to history.

The reason that the free market, private ownership, limited government philosophy is popularly regarded as an apology for affluence rather than as a boon for the poor is that its practice has made possible such affluence. If we note only the accomplishment, as if it were automatically due us, we lose all sight of its genesis: liberty!

The alleviation of poverty is a by-product–a lifesaving benefit–along man’s way toward the higher ideal of liberty. The benefit springs from no other source than liberty.

Restore and preserve the practice of free market, private ownership, limited government principles; and one of the by-products will be as much removal of poverty as possible.

Doubtless, we have been negligent about accenting this important dividend of liberty: it is a boon to the poor. However, if we set the alleviation of poverty as our highest goal we shall, by thus lowering our sights, not only spread poverty but lose our freedom.

Leonard Read recognized that economic liberty gives every member of society the best possible incentives to indirectly benefit themselves by developing and applying whatever resources and skills they possess—great or small—in a manner most beneficial to others. In short, the pursuit of liberty is the most effective means of helping the poor economically, because it is the most effective means of helping everyone in society economically. But that was not his primary concern. He was most concerned with how coercive government redistribution undermined recipients’ growth as self-responsible, creative and productive individuals. But the pursuit of freedom is the most effective means of achieving that, as well.

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