The Failed War on Poverty – 50 Years of Prog Facepalm

Quite a few depressing anniversaries of late: 100th year of Federal Reserve; 50 years since Kennedy assassination; and now 50 year anniversary of War on Poverty.

First, you can’t declare “wars” on abstract or social phenomena like poverty or drugs or terrorism. We of course have the progressives to thank for this stupid idiom: William James argued that early 20th century progressivism needed to transcend the “moral equivalent of war” to domestic, non-war progressive social policies. If you give something the urgency of “war” you’re likely to get an urgent reaction.

So what have we gotten out of all this asymmetrical “warfare?” Far less than was promised, an exorbitant sum of wasted energy and money, and worse outcomes for those intended to benefit.

The greatest tragedy of the War on Poverty is that it has been on autopilot and is free from critique or reform. If Bono can figure out the secret to solving poverty, surely your average American progtard should be able to appreciate his sentiment: “Commerce [and] entrepreneurial capitalism take more people out of poverty than aid.” (

Bono can’t be accused of not caring. The guy has spent the last 20 years making African poverty eradication his personal crusade. He’s seen plenty of money thrown at the problem, and yet he gradually arrived at where he is because the different outcomes from capitalism and from aid are so striking that even a rock icon and former skeptic of free enterprise can come around.

So if it is now painfully obvious to Bono that foreign aid to Africa is a gigantic boondoggle that has nothing on entrepreneurial capitalism’s ability to lift people out of poverty, why does the progressive left in this country still insist that aid from the government is the answer to poverty, unemployment, etc? Is it because they use the aid as a cynical tool aimed at political gain? Or are their hearts in the right place and they’re just too economically illiterate to understand that there’s a much better way to fight poverty?

Charles Krauthammer was a Great Society liberal working at The New Republic up through the mid-80’s. His principle reason for converting to conservatism was the War on Poverty. He said he was in favor of LBJ’s programs initially, but after 20 years it was impossible to ignore the data; not only had poverty not dramatically changed since the inception of the war against it, it had grown worse and the federal aid had contributed to it. This conclusion was enough for Krauthammer to ditch the Great Society and liberalism, unfortunately he was essentially alone on the left in admitting its failure.

50 years, $20 trillion spent, poverty still winning the war. And the real shame is that progressives won’t admit it, and in fact call for more spending and more aid. The only way to eradicate poverty is to embrace markets and capitalism. But those are bad, scary, evil things that only rich, selfish conservative racists would endorse, or so believes the modern left.