Belmont Club

Mother Knows Best

Thomas Sowell vs Frances Fox Piven. After the Read More. Piven appears to argue that since people are slotted — at birth — into castes by the system, then the system should be changed to put them into different slots, thereby fixing things. Sowell disagrees and their exchange is entertaining and informative to behold.

In an article in the Nation in 1966, Piven argued that “the strategy we propose, is a massive drive to recruit the poor onto the welfare rolls”. That would solve the question of assignment of worth categorically by changing the status quo. The government, by finding itself supporting so many people, would in effect wake up to discover that it had established socialism in a fit of absentmindedness.

A series of welfare drives in large cities would, we believe, impel action on a new federal program to distribute income, eliminating the present public welfare system and alleviating the abject poverty which it perpetrates. Widespread campaigns to register the eligible poor for welfare aid, and to help existing recipients obtain their full benefits, would produce bureaucratic disruption in welfare agencies and fiscal disruption in local and state governments. These disruptions would generate severe political strains, and deepen existing divisions among elements in the big-city Democratic coalition: the remaining white middle class, the white working-class ethnic groups and the growing minority poor. To avoid a further weakening of that historic coalition, a national Democratic administration would be constrained to advance a federal solution to poverty that would override local welfare failures, local class and racial conflicts and local revenue dilemmas. By the internal disruption of local bureaucratic practices, by the furor over public welfare poverty, and by the collapse of current financing arrangements, powerful forces can be generated for major economic reforms at the national level.

The problem with Piven’s theory is that events in Europe have shown those “major economic reforms” to be unsustainable, if not actually ruinous. However, she appears to believe that the European crisis is only apparent, being the result of the Man hiding the Stash. Find that stash and things become sustainable again. Taking a page from the Europeans Left, Piven argues that the way to shake it loose is to ramp up the crisis. Ramp it up enough and the money comes popping out of the slot machine, just like she imagines it will. In a recent article in the Nation, Piven says what Americans need to learn from Europe is how to organize a good riot.

So where are the angry crowds, the demonstrations, sit-ins and unruly mobs? … Shouldn’t the unemployed be on the march? Why aren’t they demanding enhanced safety net protections and big initiatives to generate jobs? …

Protests by the unemployed led by young workers and by students, who face a future of joblessness, just might become large enough and disruptive enough to have an impact in Washington. There is no science that predicts eruption of protest movements. Who expected the angry street mobs in Athens or the protests by British students? Who indeed predicted the strike movement that began in the United States in 1934, or the civil rights demonstrations that spread across the South in the early 1960s? We should hope for another American social movement from the bottom—and then join it.

Once there’s an impact in Washington, then the Man will bestir himself, get the key to the Stash and all will be well. Thomas Sowell never bought the idea that you could force government to act and government could in turn force any outcome it wanted.  Here are Sowell and Piven crossing verbal swords in the second video.

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The main issue it seems to me, is who fixes inequalities that arise from systemic biases? Beyond the argument of whether the answer is the removal of biases or the establishment of compensatory biases the more important question is who decides?

Sowell seems to argue that any process which involves the political assignment of benefits and costs necessarily reduces freedom. It transfers proceedings away from the objects of the benefit themselves and reduces their choice to electing whichever group of politicians seem more ‘enlightened’ than the others.

Liberation under the Piven doctrine effectively becomes a choice by the serfs of which aristocracy they believe will do best by them, since worth is determined by the political process anyway. Which side do we back by our “mass actions”? Liberation becomes the process of putting the “right” people in charge of the masses. It is not — it is never — putting the masses in charge of themselves.

Why not put the masses in charge of their own lives? Because that would require facilitating innumerable transactions and contracts between individuals.  That would require self-interest and economic calculation to propel the system. That would mean a market, whose job it would be for the state to keep fair, and that were too little a role for such as Piven thinks should rule the roost. Besides, we all know that markets don’t anything but swindle the poor. Markets are the reign of greed and society does  so much better under the rule of enlightenment.

So put on your marching shoes and head for Washington, to put the right people in charge, and if Piven is correct, enough banging on the doors of the Capital will inevitably produce the keys to the hidden gold, which will be spent of course, in the manner Piven knows everybody would want it to be spent.

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