Walter E. Block
September 23, 2013
Gang violence is afflicting some of our major cities, Chicago chief amongst them. As I write, there are reports coming in regarding a shooting of 13 people at a basketball court in the Second City. Fortunately, no one was killed in this episode. But a three year old boy is now in critical condition as a result of being shot, and the not unreasonable expectation is that retaliation from the aggrieved gang toward the perpetrators of this particular act will soon follow. According to USA Today, this bout of gunfire was due to a dispute between the Gangster Disciples and the Black P Stone Nation gang. Neither is likely to sue the other in a court of law to settle their grievances with each other.
The purpose of the present essay is to offer the libertarian solution to this problem of inner city gangs, shootings, violence. How can we radically reduce if not entirely eliminate these acts of barbarism? But before we offer the correct (e.g., libertarian) analysis of this situation, let us consider those offered, and now often implemented, by our friends on the left and the right. (We libertarians fit into neither of these categories. We are neither “liberals” nor “progressives” nor “socialists” nor “communists” nor “neighborhood organizers” nor “left-wingers” nor “Democrats.” Nor are we “conservatives” or “right-wingers” or “fascists” or “constitutionalists” or “Republicans.” We are something apart and separate from both of them. We are libertarians. Hear us ROAR! )
What, then, is the “solution” of those who occupy the left part of the political economic spectrum? First and foremost and always, throw more government money at the problem, funds mulcted, of course, from the innocent and long-suffering tax payer. Money for welfare, money for food stamps, money for parks, money for swimming pools, money for basketball courts, money for midnight basketball games, money for health care, money for unemployment insurance, money for gun control, money for social workers, money for section 8 housing, money for public housing, money for, well, I’m running out of space here. Lew insists on brevity, and I don’t want to waste any more space detailing how the pinkos “solve” these problems. Suffice it to say of any single one of these initiatives, and certainly for all of them put together, that they are not working out too well. Instead of addressing the challenge, they only exacerbate it.
What, then, is the “solution” of those who occupy the right part of the political economic spectrum? Front and center, throw more draconian laws at the problem. Step up the drug laws; they are far too lenient. Throw people in jail for even thinking about addictive drugs. Strengthen laws against prostitution, another source of gang revenues. More and more use of the death penalty for disrespecting a policeman (I am exaggerating here, but only by a little bit). Build more prisons. Hire more police. Arm them with military tanks, helicopters, assault rifles, etc. Coerce school kids into pledging allegiance not once a day, but every hour (I am exaggerating here too, but only by a little bit). Force everyone to fly the flag of the United States every day, not just on national holidays, and to wear flag lapel pins (I am exaggerating here, but as per usual only by a little bit).
What is the libertarian analysis? These problems, heck, virtually all of social disarray, are caused by prior government programs, and the libertarian solution consists of repealing them. (Read Mises on how any given statist intervention creates difficulties, and the only response of the powers-that-be is to further reduce freedom in a desperate attempt to address the upheaval engendered by this first one, and so on.)
Let us list a few of these statist policies, and consider how they generate violence in general, and gangs in particular.
1. The welfare state
Welfare has undermined the black family. An intact familial unit (both mother and father in the household) is the foundation of civilized behavior. Broken families are causally related to all sorts of indices of social failure: criminal behavior, gang membership, lower education, less general achievement, unemployment, jail sentences, out-of-wedlock births, etc. If you place a frog in boiling water, its metabolism is such that it can jump out immediately. But if you put a member of this species in cold water, and then gradually heat it up, it stays there and dies. Slavery was like boiling water to the black family. It did not break it up (except, of coure, for the duration). In the aftermath of the war that ended in 1865 (‘twas not a civil war, but that is another issue) husbands and wives from this community were very intent upon getting back together with one another (the movie “Django Unchained” is a particularly dramatic illustration of this phenomenon). The censuses at the early part of the 20th century demonstrate that black and white family formation was similar, with only a very slight advantage for the latter. The welfare program, in contrast, which was heavily boosted by Lyndon Baines Johnson, scourge of the black community, undermined their family structure. The state, through its welfare programs, made a young black girl who was pregnant a far better financial offer than the young black man who was the father of her child was able to do. See “Losing Ground” by Charles Murray on this.
Previously an unwed mother was a disgrace. The young pregnant woman was typically sent to a relative in a far away city, where she would give birth and then have her child adopted. But with the advent of a heightened welfare system staring in the mid 1960s, the entire culture changed. This was now acceptable; maybe, even, admirable. The situation has gone so far as to include high school classes for pregnant girls. Estimates are that some 75% of black children are now being raised in non intact families. (Nor is this a phenomenon limited to African-Americans; a similar plague is new infesting mainly white Sweden, and for similar reasons).
Why the increase in black gangs? Although this must be entirely speculative, one possibility is that for the young black male, the gang might be the substitute for the family the welfare system has taken away from him. There may be very few adult males in his family, but there are plenty of older men in gangs. Boys yearn for adult male supervision, friendship and love, and if it is unavailable for them in one context, thanks to a vicious, depraved and immoral welfare system, they might well seek this elsewhere. In gangs.
Put the black family back together again. Eliminate welfare. Reduce gang membership! Save precious lives. Left liberals would never agree to this. This only demonstrates that either they are ignorant savages, and/or they just don’t care about the deaths of young black men, and, yes, mere children, in the inner cities, at least not anywhere near as much as they do for their “progressive” ideology. Political correctness uber alles.
2. Legalize drugs
According to some estimates, some 60% of U.S. prisoners are in jail for drug offenses. These are victimless crimes, and these laws should be repealed since drug use, sale, manufacture, etc., do not violate the libertarian non aggression principle (NAP). Illegal drugs also constitute an inordinate proportion of the revenues of inner city gangs (this is particularly true in Mexico, and for Latin American gangs in the U.S.) Legalize drugs, and at one fell swoop a major contribution to the power of organized crime is eliminated. A similar analysis applies to the elimination of alcohol prohibition, which put a serious dent in the pocketbooks of the Mafioso gangs that had run that business.
Reduce gang membership! Save precious lives. Right wingers would never agree to this. However, this only demonstrates that either they are ignorant savages, and/or they just don’t care about deaths of young black men, and, yes, mere children, in the inner cities, at least not anywhere near as much as they do for their conservative ideology.
Now, please, do not confuse the case for legalizing addictive drugs, all of them, with support for their actual use. The two are entirely separate and different. They should not be conflated It is no contradiction at all to oppose laws prohibiting such substances, and also to be in opposition to people using marijuana, cocaine, heroin, etc. The libertarian is not a libertine. It is a logically consistent position to be against incarcerating those in the drug trade, whether buyers or sellers, and also to counsel against their use.
2. Legalize prostitution
Gangs have no comparative advantage in organizing houses of “ill-repute.” In Nevada, and in several European countries where prostitution is legal, there is no evidence of organized crime control. Legalize prostitution, and yet another important financial support for inner city gangs disappears, and with it another chunk of their reason d’etre. Plus, it is the right thing to do.
Now, please, do not confuse the case for legalizing sex for hire with support for engaging in such actions, whether on the demand or supply side of the equation. The two are entirely different. It is no contradiction at all to oppose laws prohibiting prostitution, and also to be in opposition to people taking part in these activities. The libertarian is not a libertine. It is a logically consistent position to be against incarcerating sex “workers” and their customers, and also to counsel against any and all involvement in such practices.
Yet howls of outrage will emanate from both left and right. In the latter case, people will be sputtering mad at any such idea. Why, these harlots should be sent to hell, they think. And, here on earth they should be treated in a similar manner, at least to the best of our ability. Off to the hoosegow with the whores, is their view. In the former case, the feminists are equally outraged. (Left wing feminists is virtually a redundancy.) Prostitution is demeaning to women, they maintain. Woman’s libertarian is incompatible with selling sexual services they aver. But whatever happened to “freedom of choice?” Should this be operational, only, in the context of abortion, but nothing else? Of course, the libertarian would oppose child prostitution and compelling women to prostitute themselves, but what of those females who choose this line of work? Feminist opposition to prostitution shows, only, that they are illogical.
It has always been a source of wonder that while sex is legal, paying for it is not. If the activity is a per se violation of rights, it should be prohibited by law, of course; if not, then not. But to criminalize mere payment for something that is otherwise legal is to take a barbaric attitude toward market transactions. Giving someone an apple is legal, and so should be selling this fruit. Murder should be against the law, whether it is done “for free” or it is paid for, as in murder-for-hire. It is totally illogical to criminalize a good or service merely because it is sold, when the thing itself is entirely legal.
4. Eliminate the minimum wage law
Wages are determined by productivity (to be technical, by discounted marginal revenue product). What is productivity? If adding one more worker for an hour to the shop, factory or store means that total revenues increase by $5, this means the productivity of such a person is $5 per hour. In the free market there is a tendency for wages to equal this level. For, if compensation was only $2 per hour, a pure profit of $3 per hour could be earned by a competing employer. Such an employee would tend to both seek employment elsewhere, and to be targeted by other employers eager to “exploit” this worker, by paying him more. If payment were above $5 per hour, say, $9 per hour, then any employer who paid such an amount would likely be headed for the bankruptcy courts, particularly if he did this once too often. He would suffer losses of $4 per hour.
At the time of this writing, the minimum wage law is pegged at $7.25. This implies that a person with productivity of only $5 per hour would be unemployed, since giving him a job would result in a loss of $2.25 every hour he is working. If the minimum wage law is raised to $15 on an hourly basis, as many of our “progressives” are now advocating, then anyone with productivity of less than that higher amount would be consigned to the garbage heap of unemployment. But do not think that this nasty, evil and wicked law is solely the responsibility of lefties. Righties, too, support it. For example, Mitt Romney favored the minimum wage law in his 2012 campaign for the presidency of the U.S. Even a minimum wage of $5 is highly problematic; it unemploys people with productivity of less than that amount, for example, $1 per hour. It is only libertarians who can oppose this law as a matter of principle, not merely because it creates vast havoc in the labor market, although it certainly does precisely that. For paying someone a small amount of money simply does not violate the NAP, the be-all and end-all for libertarian law. And, all actions that do not offend the NAP ought to be legalized.
But it is difficult, nay, impossible, to live on $1, or $5, or $7.25 or even $9 per hour, many people will object. But this indicates economic illiteracy. For the minimum wage law is not an employment law; it is, rather, an unemployment law. It does not compel any employer whatsoever to hire anyone. It only stipulates that if someone is taken on the payroll, then he must be paid a certain amount of money. The present law, pegged at $7.25 does not compel anyone to hire anyone else at this pay level. It only mandates that if someone is hired at $7.25, that he must be paid at least that amount. So the minimum wage law is not responsible for the hiring a single solitary worker.
Many people see this law as placing a floor under wages. Raise the minimum wage level, and compensation will rise in lock step. Nonsense. No, nonsense on stilts. If a physical metaphor must be used, it is that the minimum wage law is more like a hurdle, or a high jump bar: one has to “jump over” the level of wages set by this pernicious legislation. If the minimum wage “bar” is set at $3 per hour, then, in order to land a job, one’s productivity must be at least that high. If the “bar” is increased to, say, $5 per hour, then one’s productivity must be boosted to at least that level, otherwise joblessness is the inevitable result. But productivity stems from how hard and smart we work, and how must capital equipment we can have at our command. It cannot be magically increased by law.
If the minimum wage law was such a blessing, why not raise it to $150 per hour, or $1500, or $15,000? Why be so niggardly, progressives, as to demand a mere $15 per hour? If by mere legislative enactment we could produce prosperity, then let’s get to it! Obviously, this is wrong. At a minimum wage of $15,000 per hour, with the possible exception of people like LeBron James or Bill Gates, we would all be unemployed, and it is difficult in the extreme to see how even they could still have jobs, given that none of us could any longer afford their services, as we would now have no wages with which to do so.
What, pray tell, does this excursion into basic economics have to do with the subject under discussion, namely, solving the problem of gang-related murders and shootings in the inner city? Let us now get back to that issue. According to lying underestimated government unemployment statistics for August 2013, the latest figures now available, the unemployment rate for black teens is a truly spectacular 38.2%. For white teenagers it is about half that, or 20.5%. Black unemployment rates in general are about twice that of whites’: 13.0% compared to 6.4%. Why is this? It is due to the fact that young people have lower productivity than adults, and blacks have less than whites. In terms of our metaphor, fewer of the former can jump over the high jump bar set up by the minimum wage barrier. Males also tend to have higher unemployment rates than females. For example, the rate for white adults is 6.2% for males and 5.5% for female adults; equivalent numbers for blacks are 13.5% and 10.6%. Extrapolating for black male teens, the number is even higher than 38.2%. Perhaps it is something in the order of 48.7%, if we infer only from the unemployment rates of black male and female adults.
One commentator goes so far as to peg the jobless rate of black males teens at 95%. Joblessness is a better measure of the present crisis than unemployment because it attempts to add to this figure the discouraged worker who is no longer in the labor force, and hence, by government legerdemain, is no longer considered unemployed, since he is no longer looking for a job. My instincts tell me this 95% estimate is too high, but even if we lower this a bit, the result cannot be considered anything less than astounding.
States Thomas Sowell:
“Most nations today have minimum wage laws, but they have not always had them. Unemployment rates have been very much lower in places and times when there were no minimum wage laws.
“Switzerland is one of the few modern nations without a minimum wage law. In 2003, “The Economist” magazine reported: “Switzerland’s unemployment neared a five-year high of 3.9 percent in February.” In February of this year, Switzerland’s unemployment rate was 3.1 percent. A recent issue of “The Economist” showed Switzerland’s unemployment rate as 2.1 percent.
“Most Americans today have never seen unemployment rates that low. However, there was a time when there was no federal minimum wage law in the United States. The last time was during the Coolidge administration, when the annual unemployment rate got as low as 1.8 percent. When Hong Kong was a British colony, it had no minimum wage law. In 1991 its unemployment rate was under 2 percent.”
Sowell continues: “If they (the advocates of the minimum wage law – W. Block) thought things through, how could they have imagined that having large numbers of idle teenage boys hanging out on the streets together would be good for any community — especially in places where most of these youngsters were raised by single mothers, another unintended consequence, in this case, of well-meaning welfare policies?”
Precisely. This is the key. Idle hands are the devil’s workshop. Pass a minimum wage law that precludes honest work for black male teenagers, and it is no wonder than many would seek illegal employment with gangs. On the other hand, repeal this law, and the expectation is that fewer would join.
Couple this with cutting the legs out from under gangs by repealing welfare, legalizing drugs and prostitution, and we have a recipe that will put a serious dent in gang membership and drive by shootings, of the sort that now infest Chicago.
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