Everywhere you look in the right-wing commentariat, you see the recurring theme of the “underclass” as parasites. Its most recent appearance was the meme of the productive, tax-paying 53% vs. the tax-consuming 47%. And of course there’s the perennial favorite mythical quote attributed to Alexander Tytler, trotted out by many who should know better, about the majority discovering they can vote themselves largess from the public treasury. (If you really believe the majority control the government, or that the government serves the interests of the majority, you should avoid using sharp tools without supervision.)
But mainly there’s an endless supply of resentment against “welfare queens,” and friend-of-a-friend stories about the luxurious tastes of those using food stamps at the checkout line, whose cumulative effect is to reassure the middle class that their real enemies are to be found by looking down, and not up.
If your resentment is directed downward against the “underclass” and recipients of welfare-for-the-poor, it’s most definitely misdirected.
First, let’s look at the little picture, and consider the net effects of state policy on the actual recipients of welfare. Consider how state policies on behalf of land owners and real estate investors, like the enforcement of absentee title to vacant and unimproved land, drives up rents and closes off access to cheap living space. Consider how licensing schemes and “anti-jitney” laws, zoning laws against operating businesses out of one’s home or out of pushcarts, and regulations that impose needless capital outlays and entry barriers or overhead costs, close off opportunities for self-employment. And consider how zoning restrictions on mixed-use development and other government promotions of sprawl and the car culture increase the basic cost of subsistence. You think the money spent on welfare for the poor equals that drain on the resources of the underclass?
Next, look at the big picture. Consider the total rents extracted from society as a whole by the dominant economic classes: The inflation of land rent and mortgages by the above-mentioned absentee titles to unimproved land; the usurious interest rates resulting from legal tender laws and restraints on competition in the supply of credit; the enormous markups over actual production cost that result from copyrights, patents and trademarks; the oligopoly markup (once estimated by the Nader Group at around 20% of retail price in industries dominated by a handful of firms) in industries cartelized by government regulations and entry barriers …
Now consider, out of this vast ocean of rents extracted by state-connected parasites, the miniscule fraction that trickles back to the most destitute of the destitute, in the form of welfare and food stamps, in just barely large enough quantities to prevent homelessness and starvation from reaching high enough levels to destabilize the political system and threaten the ruling classes’ ability to extract rents from all of us. The state-allied landlords, capitalists and rentiers rob us all with a front-end loader, and then the state — THEIR state — uses a teaspoon to relieve those hardest hit.
Every time in history the state has provided a dole to the poorest of the poor — the distribution of free grain and oil to the proletariat of Rome, the Poor Laws in England, AFDC and TANF since the 1960s — it has occurred against a background of large-scale robbery of the poor by the rich. The Roman proletariat received a dole to prevent bloody revolt after the common lands of the Republic had been engrossed by the nobility and turned into slave-farms. The Poor Laws of England were passed after the landed classes enclosed much of the Open Fields for sheep pasture. The urban American blacks who received AFDC in the 1960s were southern sharecroppers, or their children, who had been tractored off their land (or land that should have been theirs, if they had received the land that was rightfully theirs after Emancipation) after WWII.
As Frances Fox Piven and Andrew Cloward argued in “Regulating the Poor,” the state — which is largely controlled by and mainly serves the interest of the propertied classes — only steps in to provide welfare to the poor when it’s necessary to prevent social destabilization. When it does so, it usually provides the bare minimum necessary. And in the process, it uses the power conferred by distributing the public assistance to enforce a maximum in social discipline on the recipients (as anyone who’s dealt with the humiliation of a human services office, or a visit from a case-worker, can testify).
So don’t resent the folks who get welfare and food stamps. Your real enemies — the ones the state really serves — are above, not below.
Kevin Carson is a senior fellow of the Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org) and holds the Center’s Karl Hess Chair in Social Theory.