18 January 2010

Martin Luther King, Jr. ~ Not Only Freedom, But Justice, Equality and Solidarity Too! (again)

Martin Luther King, Jr., Under Arrest, Montgomery, Alabama, 1958.
Photograph © Charles Moore.

This post amounts to this year's installment of has become an annual offering - an attempt to de-mythologize and de-sanitize Martin Luther King, Jr.. The point is that we ought to at least try to celebrate the actual past. What follows is a passage from the final chapter of his final book - Where Do We Go From Here? (1967) in which he advocates a guaranteed basic income.
"In the treatment of poverty nationally, one fact stands out: there are twice as many white poor as Negro poor in the United States. Therefore I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination, but will discuss the poverty that affects white and Negro alike.

Up to recently we have proceeded from a premise that poverty is a consequence of multiple evils:lack of education restricting job opportunities;poor housing which stultified home life and suppressed initiative;fragile family relationships which distorted personality development.

The logic of this approach suggested that each of these causes be attacked one by one. Hence a housing program to transform living conditions, improved educational facilities to furnish tools for better job opportunities, and family counseling to create better personal adjustments were designed. In combination these measures were intended to remove the causes of poverty.

While none of these remedies in itself is unsound, all have a fatal disadvantage. The programs have never proceeded on a coordinated basis or at a similar rate of development. . . . At no time has a total, coordinated and fully adequate program been conceived. As a consequence, fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor. In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else. I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.

Earlier in this century this proposal would have been greeted with ridicule and denunciation as destructive of initiative and responsibility. At that time economic status was considered the measure of the individual's abilities and talents. In the simplistic thinking of that day the absence of worldly goods indicated a want of industrious habits and moral fiber. We have come a long way in our understanding of human motivation and of the blind operation of our economic system. Now we realize that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will. The poor are less often dismissed from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent. We also know that no matter how dynamically the economy develops and expands it does not eliminate all poverty.


The problem indicates that our emphasis must be two-fold. We must create full employment or we must create incomes. People must be made consumers by one method or the other. Once they are placed in this position, we need to be concerned that the potential of the individual is not wasted. New forms of work that enhance the social good will have to be devised for those for whom traditional jobs are not available.


This proposal is not a "civil rights" program, in the sense that that term is currently used. The program would benefit all the poor, including the two-thirds of them who are white. I hope that both Negro and white will act in coalition to effect this change, because their combined strength will be necessary to overcome the fierce opposition we must realistically anticipate."
There are a few salient features of this passage. The first is that King, unfortunately, was way too sanguine about our having ceased blaming the poor for their own plight. The second is that he had moved beyond a "civil rights" agenda to endorse economic justice and solidarity across races. The third is that there are plenty of good reasons to take the proposal for guaranteed income or even a civic minimum seriously.* There hardly get a public hearing hear in the U.S. - after all that would be socialism!

And Moore's photograph is an additional reminder, if one were needed, of how King actually was treated during his lifetime - even well before he began to publicly endorse radical political-economic policies.
* For a start see ~ Phillipe van Parijs. Real Freedom for All, Oxford University Press, 1997; Stuart White. The Civic Minimum. Oxford University Press, 2003; Bruce Ackerman, et. al. eds. Redesigning Redistribution, Verso, 2005; Phillipe van Parijs, et. al. What's Wrong With a Free Lunch?, Beacon Press, 2005; Bruce Ackerman & Anne Alsott. The Stakeholder Society, Yale University Press, 2006.

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