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Jewish World Review Dec. 4, 2000 / 7 Kislev, 5761

Thomas Sowell

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Poverty and the Left

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- THE PRIVATIONS and sufferings of the poor have long been central themes in the vision of the political left. That is what attracted many of us to the left in our youth. But the actual consequences of the agenda of the left on the poor -- and on others -- is what eventually drove many of us to the right.

Most of the leading opponents of the left, in the United States and around the world, began on the left. These include Ronald Reagan, Milton Friedman and the whole neo-conservative movement, as well as Raymond Aron in France and Friedrich Hayek in Austria. There is no comparable exodus from the right to the left.

Why is this so? The favorite explanation by those who remain on the left is that their former comrades "sold out." But nobody sells out to the lowest bidder. The real money, for intellectuals at least, is overwhelmingly on the left. Black intellectuals, especially, can easily earn six-figure incomes just from lecture fees alone at colleges and universities around the country.

All it takes are some heated accusations of "racism" against whites and denunciations of American society in general, with perhaps a few antisemitic remarks thrown in for good measure.

Nowhere can you make more money with less effort or ability. By contrast, there is very little demand for conservative speakers -- black or white -- on campus, and the few who show up are likely to be heckled or shouted down.

Nor are journalism or the arts havens for conservatives. Far from it. Whatever blacklist existed against Communists and their fellow-travelers in Hollywood during the McCarthy era, it has been completely outstripped by the blacklisting or intimidation of conservatives there now. If the exodus from the left is not due to people selling out to the lowest bidder, then what does cause it?

Let us go back to the poor. Why are we concerned about them? Some are concerned lest the poor have inadequate food, shelter or other basic requirements for life. Others are concerned because of the inequalities, disparities or "gaps" that they represent. And still others are concerned because the poor can serve as a rationale for increasing the political power of the left.

Those who are primarily concerned about the well-being of the poor are likely to discover over time that much of the agenda of the left does not really do much good for the poor, and some of that agenda -- environmental extremism, for example -- actually makes the poor worse off.

Meanwhile, nothing has a track record of lifting millions of people from poverty to prosperity like a free market economy. Most officially "poor" Americans today have things that middle-class Americans of an earlier time could only dream about -- including color TV, videocassette recorders, microwave ovens, and their own cars. Moreover, half of all poor households have air-conditioning.

Leftist redistribution of income could never accomplish that, because there are simply not enough rich people for their wealth to have such a dramatic effect on the living standards of the poor, even if it was all confiscated and redistributed. Moreover, many attempts at redistributing wealth in various countries around the world have ended up redistributing poverty.

After all, rich people can see the political handwriting on the wall, and can often take their money and leave the country, long before a government program can get started to confiscate it. They are also likely to take with them skills and entrepreneurial experience that are even harder to replace than the money.

For those of us whose main concern is the well-being of ordinary people, it is a no-brainer to abandon the left as soon as we acquire enough knowledge about what actually happens, as distinguished from what leftist theories say will happen.

It is a very different story for those on the left whose goal is either a self-righteous sense of superiority or the political power with which to express their self-infatuation by imposing their vision on others. Here the poor are a means to an end. These kinds of leftists show remarkably little interest in the creation of wealth, which has raised living standards for the poor, as compared to their obsession with redistribution, which has not.

These kinds of leftists concentrate on inequalities that can be dealt with by turning money and power over to people like themselves. These kinds of leftists will never desert the cause that serves them so well, no matter how badly it serves others.

JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of several books, including his latest, A Personal Odyssey.

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