One of the other clichés of our times is the “bootstrap” theory: the notion that those who don’t support the current political agenda believe that people should lift themselves by their own bootstraps, should be left to their own devices, that the government is doing too much to help them. There is no such theory. I have been around a few conservative economists in my time and I have listened but have never heard it. I have not seen it anywhere in history. But I see it as a convenient straw man for people who do not want to confront opposing views. The issue is not that the government gives too much help to the poor. The problem is that the government creates too much harm to the poor. The cost of taking care of the poor is relatively small, compared to the cost of bureaucracy. Some years ago someone figured out how much it would cost the government to lift every man, woman, and child in the United States out of poverty by the simple expedient of giving them money. The amount that they came to was approximately one-third of what is spent on antipoverty programs. My fellow economist Walter Williams has figured out how much the welfare expenditure in this country comes to per poor family. It is $32,000. Very few poor families get $32,000.

Another device that is often used to avoid taking unpopular arguments seriously is to argue that those people who are opposed to the welfare-state approach are simply middle class. I wish I had a dollar for every time I have been asked whether I came from an affluent background, and if that is why I have such an unfeeling heart for the problems of the poor. I have never heard that question asked of Andrew Young, who indeed did come from an affluent background. Some time ago I met with a well-known TV newsman, and I asked him why it is that I look on television and see black spokesmen saying diametrically the opposite of what I hear in the black community and what I see in Gallup polls and other polls. For example, blacks in this country support voucher systems two to one; blacks in this country prefer more strict enforcement of crime laws, are opposed to quota systems in employment or college admissions, and have never had a majority in favor of busing. And yet when I look at the TV news, an entirely different world is created before my eyes on that tube. And he said to me, “Well, we can put Ben Hooks or Jesse Jackson on TV, but we can’t put the Gallup poll on TV.”

One of the consequences of this is that we are having, in addition to the usual conflicts among groups that any multiethnic or multiracial society has, artificial polarization. We are having polarization between a handful of black leaders and a handful of white leaders, many saying things which have very little to do with the beliefs of the people in whose name they are speaking. If we are looking at the future and looking responsibly, we can learn much from the experience of others — which does not mean blind imitation; sometimes it means avoiding the mistakes that others have made. Many of the various policies that I hear being urged as the royal road to salvation for blacks today are policies which were tried and failed repeatedly by the Irish in the nineteenth century. It is true that the black history is unique. But of course, you would have to make comparisons even to know that. And uniqueness is never sufficient reason to avoid learning at someone else’s expense rather than your own.

One of the problems that I see is the problem of the political interventionist state. I pose it in categorical terms, as if there is some noninterventionist state. We are really talking about differences of degree. There seems to be a notion that political interventionism that produces earmarked benefits for this or that group necessarily makes those groups better off. But when you think of it, no politician gets elected by sacrificing 90 percent of the voters for the benefit of 10 percent of the voters. One thing that all politicians can do — whatever the party — is to count votes. They may create the illusion that they are helping 10 percent. Indeed, the ideal politician creates that illusion ten times. But since the government is not generating any wealth, government programs mean nothing more or less than robbing Peter to pay Paul. Now, there is no political capital to be made by robbing Peter to pay Paul if you get Peter’s vote and lose Paul’s vote. The real trick is to rob Peter to pay Paul on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and rob Paul to pay Peter on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday and get both their votes. Fortunately, the government is closed on Sunday. By following this strategy, you can give a little bit to this group, a little bit to that group, and none of them ever ask if what is given to A is taken from B and what is given to B is taken from A.

Let’s look at some of the losses that blacks suffer from the interventionist state. I think the greatest single loss is that the minimum wage laws promoted by labor unions protect their members by pricing black young people out of the market. There is no way to rise up a ladder if you can’t get your foot on the ladder in the first place.

Environmentalism, to use the word they like to use — I call it the recreational-land-use special interest — means that, for the benefit of a relatively small group of people, we have set aside vast areas of the United States, an amount equal to one-third of this country, which is to say equivalent to all of the United States east of the Mississippi. Clearly, you cannot set aside that much land, take it off the market, without having the price of the other land rise and having that rise reflected in rents and mortgage costs all across the country. Of course, the government can come to your rescue with projects and subsidies. But, of course, these don’t begin to add up to what you have lost by this vast giveaway to a handful of affluent people. One of the great coups of the whole environmental movement is to avoid talking about people and tradeoffs. You would never dream that there are people who have alternative demands for the same resource by reading the environmental literature. You hear about protecting the environment and preserving “fragile areas.” It is very touching. You would never dream that what that means is that one group of people will use the power of the government to put those vast resources at their disposal far below cost and keep them out of the hands of other people who have other uses for them. The recreational land that is set aside is land from which you do not build homes, from which you do not get energy, from which you do not create jobs.

We have a protection of endangered species act that is concerned with every weed and reptile. We also need to recognize that human beings are an endangered species, and especially those who are poor. There seems to be a notion that Darwinian evolution may have been a good idea at one time, but we are going to bring it to a screeching halt in our generation. Despite thousands of years in which all sorts of creatures have come into existence and gone out of existence, in which all sorts of ecologies have evolved, totally different from one another, for some reason the particular creatures that we have seen — even if there is only a handful of us who have ever actually seen them -those creatures are to be preserved forever, at all costs. The particular kind of ecology that happens to exist at this moment must be frozen for all future time.

One of the problems in dealing with the politics of poverty, and the programs for the disadvantaged in general and blacks in particular, is that vast empires can be built on these programs. These programs definitely prevent poverty among bureaucrats, economists, statisticians, and many others. The poor are also very useful as an entering wedge for programs which ultimately benefit other people who, by no stretch of the imagination, are poor. In New York City, for example, open enrollment was hailed as a great way by which blacks and Puerto Ricans could get into the free municipal universities. It became, instead, a means by which middle-class people who were paying tuition at NYU and Long Island University could now put that cost on the taxpayers. It is true that a handful of blacks and Puerto Ricans did, in fact, get in, but they were swamped by many others.

There’s another serious problem, closely tied to the issue of state interventionism, and that’s the notion that the poor, that blacks, are guinea pigs. They are subjects out there for every “innovative” idea that pops into the head of some academic. That they are there to provide raw material for surveys and schemes of various sorts. Above all, that their freedom of choice is to be denied in order to correspond to the grand designs of people who think they know better.

One of the more remarkable editorials that I saw a few years ago appeared in The New Republic as an argument against vouchers. The argument was that if you had vouchers, then those black parents who were most concerned about their children and most knowledgeable would pull their children out of the public schools, leaving behind only those whose parents didn’t care. The New Republic thought that was a terrible thing to do. While every other group in this country has risen layer by layer as different people began to seize opportunities, blacks alone must all be held back until such time as the very last person in line has understood the value of education. What this betrays is a proprietary conception of blacks somewhat at variance with the spirit of the Thirteenth Amendment. Insofar as we are going to enlist the intelligence, the desires, and the commitments of blacks themselves, we have to do so by offering more choice in more areas to let them decide what is best for themselves and not turn that job over to academics and government officials.