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A Radical Vision of Equality: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Economic Plan to Eliminate Poverty

There are few figures in 20th century American history more roundly beloved than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr – and, as an unfortunate consequence, few whose legacies have faced more colossal efforts at appropriation. This is ironic, since of course in his own lifetime Dr. King was among the most polarizing figures in American politics. This transformation has been facilitated in no small part by the snipping of his most broadly agreeable remarks and views and a great deal of ignorance about Dr. King’s sophisticated – but more controversial – economic views. 

Economics were fundamental to Dr. King’s career, and the ultimate goal of his economic thought was the elimination of poverty. It was to this end that King promoted the Freedom Budget of All Americans, which had as its goal the “determination that in this, the richest and most productive society ever known to man, the scourge of poverty can and must be abolished—not in some distant future, not in this generation, but within the next ten years!” King endorsed the budget and threw the support of the Southern Christian Leadership Council behind it.

The eradication of poverty as a goal – one which became increasingly key to King’s campaigns later in his life, as de jure integration failed to bring about true equality –  is one of several key principles King shared with another great American thinker, Henry George. While it is probable that they arrived at their conclusions separately, it is clear that King read George or at least was familiar with him, as he quotes Progress and Poverty in his own seminal work, Where Do We Go From Here? , arguing the George anticipated his own claim, that “New forms of work that enhance the social good will have to be devised for those for whom traditional jobs are not available.” After quoting George, King continues that “We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.”

Beyond this, King seems to have at least to an extent shared the basic Georgist view of the origin of poverty, while interpreting it in light of America’s specific racial dynamics. When asked about continued African American poverty relative even to more newly-established groups a century after the end of slavery, King responded by noting that at the end of the Civil War:

America was giving away millions of acres of land in the west and the Midwest. Which meant there was a willingness to give the white peasants from Europe an economic base. And yet it refused to give its black peasants from Africa who came involuntarily, in chains, and had worked free for 244 years any kind of economic base.

King’s response gives a compelling explanation for why European immigrants were able to quickly surpass African Americans in wealth – they had access to resources the freed slaves did not, and access to land in particular. There were many other factors at work as well – discrimination in jobs, racist housing policy, violent suppression of Black businesses, and many more factors. However, King focused on land, on understanding the ways in which inequality in land ownership (both rural and urban) has been used to systematically disadvantage Black people.

This focus on finding the root causes of and then eliminating poverty is of course a belief shared with socialists and communists.  However, King’s own views, at least in Where Do We Go From Here?, tend to align more with Georgist thought lines than Marxist ones. When Dr. King begins to list the questions he wants his audience to ask, he takes on a distinctly Georgist tone:

…one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, “Who owns the oil?”  You begin to ask the question, “Who owns the iron ore?”  You begin to ask the question, “Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water?” These are words that must be said.

King’s examples, like all his words, are carefully chosen.  He spoke not of oil derricks or iron foundries. Though he elsewhere is critical of capitalism, here it is not ‘capital’, in a Georgist sense, to which he objects.  Instead, it is what George would term ‘land’ – those elements of the natural world that existed before and without the exertions of any human.  The idea that oil and iron ore and the water supply fundamentally belong to the people – even if it is corporations that are refine and market the products made with them – is closely linked to the idea that the improvements on a piece of land belong to their improver, even as the land itself is rightful property of the community.

The discussion of communism in the book, in fact, is largely a more concise version of George’s own take on Socialism in Protection or Free Trade.  George argues that, while he is not a socialist, 

In socialism as distinguished from individualism there is an unquestionable truth-and that a truth to which (especially by those most identified with free-trade principles) too little attention has been paid. Man is primarily an individual-a separate entity, differing from his fellows in desires and powers, and requiring for the exercise of those powers and the gratification of those desires individual play and freedom. But he is also a social being, having desires that harmonize with those of his fellows, and powers that can be brought out only in concerted action.

King’s own argument is similar – indeed, his conclusion is almost identical to George’s: Capitalism fails to see the truth in collectivism. Communism fails to see the truth in individualism. Capitalism fails to realize that life is social. Communism fails to realize that life is personal.

A good and just society is neither the thesis of capitalism nor the antithesis of communism, but a socially conscious democracy which reconciles the truths of individualism and collectivism.

The representations of King in popular media are too often watered down, focusing on a few speeches that are largely uncontroversial today.  However, King was a broader thinker than we today give him credit for.  His vision was not merely a colorblind America, but a much more radical one that completely eliminated poverty, and with all possible haste.  In his understanding of both the causes and solutions to poverty, as well as presenting them rhetorically, the famously erudite King drew on a variety of sources – but his political economy in its most developed state is in many ways an evolution on George’s principles.

Read more from Matthew Downhour on his Substack here.

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