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The Other America.

For a while during the late 1960s and early '70s, it was a rhetorical fashion to say, "Any nation that can land a man on the moon can [fill in the blank]." My own contribution to this cliche was, "Any nation that can land a man on the moon can abolish the income tax." But mostly this nostrum was deployed by Sens. Humphrey and McGovern or the editorial writers of The New York Times in relation to poverty or some other intractable social problem.

Because Marxist-inspired class warfare has never resonated very well in American politics (as President Clinton found out to his surprise in the tax bill fight), establishing and enlarging the redistributionist state required a more nuanced justification rooted in the nation's middle-class "can-do" spirit, which was best exemplified in the moon-landing crusade. The breakthrough book that provided this rationale was Michael Harrington's The Other America, published in 1963. Together with J.K. Galbraith's The Affluent Society, Harrington's book supplied the intellectual basis for the Great Society's vast expansion of the welfare state beyond its previous New Deal borders. President Kennedy read The Other America shortly before his death and is said to have been moved by it to order his New Frontiersmen to begin drawing up policy blueprints based on the book.

Harrington contended that the number of Americans living in poverty was much larger than the usual statistics showed. But the most important part of his argument was a new conception of the nature of poverty. Harrington attempted to debunk the common view that poverty was chiefly the result of defects in character and initiative among poor people, arguing instead that the poor were victims, trapped in a culture that was structurally sealed off from economic progress and expanding prosperity. A rising tide wouldn't lift boats with holes in their hulls.

Appealing to the American can-do spirit, Harrington argued that an institutional attack on poverty could help produce the moral regeneration necessary to end poverty. "There is only one institution in the society capable of acting to end poverty," Harrington concluded. "That is the Federal Government." The War on Poverty was declared.

The obvious antidote book is Charles Murray's Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980 (though one should not overlook the early challenge to the poverty warriors from Edward Banfield's 1969 book, The Unheavenly City). Murray copiously documents the perverse results of this misbegotten crusade so effectively that today's poverty warriors either accept or must take account of his arguments and evidence. For example, Mickey Kaus's recent tract, The End of Equality, which rehearses many of Harrington's old themes about the structural nature of poverty, contains several discussions of Murray but not a single reference to Harrington. And central to Kaus's book is the admission that big-spending "money liberalism" won't work.

The War on Poverty is destined to continue for a long while yet, but thanks to Murray and the growing recognition that social problems aren't engineering tasks to be tackled like moon landings, we can hope that perhaps it won't end up being a fruitless Hundred Years' War.
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Author:Hayward, Steven
Publication:Reason
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1993
Words:513
Previous Article:Minding America's Businesses.
Next Article:Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980.
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