Do the Poor Get Screwed?

One of the things that annoys Republicans is that very liberal Democrats seem to have this underlying assumption that poor people get screwed by the system. Actually it’s just the opposite – comparatively, the poor benefit more from democratic capitalism than any other class.

Without question all classes benefit from democracy and the rule of law. But without democracy the poor in most countries lead truly horrific lives. Non-democratic countries are far less likely to have a safety net, allowing many of the poor to live in abject poverty with starvation a very real possibility. Without the rule of law the poor are far more likely to be abused by the state and even by the rich. This combination of extreme poverty and lack of legal protection reduces the poor in many countries almost to the status of serfs, their lives and livelihood dependent upon the whims of a local government official or their town’s wealthy family.

No matter how bad one thinks the poor have it in the U.S., we don’t let them starve to death and we protect them against arbitrarily being killed by the state or their richer neighbors. Many of the protections built into our system – welfare, public education, the protection of laws, voting rights – are specifically designed to protect the poor from the harshest outcomes and to give them the ability to effectively participate in our society. The rich see their lives improve under democracy as well. But the poor, because we remove the possibility of starvation and being arbitrarily killed by the state or their richer fellow citizens, realize a far greater comparative gain.

Somewhere my dear friend Ms. Vega is saying to herself “Ah, Mr. Ashby, but what about democratic socialism?” Democratic socialism has never actually existed. Despite the pronouncements of Republican presidential candidates, there are no socialist countries in Western Europe. Socialism is when the state owns the means of productions, the factories producing the goods that are consumed. In all of the western European countries the means of production are owned by the private sector. These countries might have more robust safety nets, but they all have democratic capitalist systems. If the poor get screwed by democratic capitalism, they are getting screwed in France also.

A great number of countries have tried socialism in the past, but all of them specifically denied the need for democracy. When we think of democratic capitalism, we tend to think of capitalism as the engine that creates wealth and democracy as the engine that redistributes the wealth. Socialists thought that socialism would actually create more wealth than capitalism, because energy wasn’t being wasted on needless competition. Yes, its true, Karl Marx thought socialism would make countries richer. Because there would be more wealth created, and because all of the factories would be owned by the state, there would be enough to go around for everybody. Without the wide disparities in income there would be much less social unrest and no need for the instrument of democracy to redistribute the wealth or protect the lower class.

Needless to say, it didn’t work out that way – not only did socialism not produce greater wealth, it also didn’t end the disparities in rewards that Marx thought the source of so much social turmoil. Marx thought that the benefits of industrialism accrued to the owners of the means of production. But more accurately they accrue to the controllers of the means of production. Even if the state formally owned the factories, they still had to be run by someone. Socialism effectively hides the class system behind the guise of state ownership but it doesn’t end it. The controllers of industrialism still did far better than the workers. In most socialist countries the workers were extremely poor.

So democratic capitalism is it – there is no better system out there, and no system that takes better care of the poor. The very liberal democrats who think the poor are getting screwed and secretly long for a different system are fooling themselves.

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