Martin Luther King, Jr. Day has become a national high holy day, still somewhat behind Independence Day and Thanksgiving in importance, but well ahead of Presidents’ Day and Veterans Day. Official speeches, marches, candlelight vigils, and service activities sponsored by civic organizations, schools, and colleges commemorate Dr. King in cities across the nation. MLK Day has taken on the character of a saint’s festival, complete with processions and pilgrimages.
In the years since his tragic death, the popular apotheosis of Dr. King has translated him from the status of a fallible mortal to a paragon of moral perfection and preternatural wisdom. Debates over affirmative action, for example, frequently deviate from arguments for or against race conscious policies in employment and education to competing interpretations of the great oracle’s remark about people being judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. It is as if social and political issues can be resolved by invoking the moral authority of the martyr. I don’t know what someone who died in 1968 would think about the public issues of the twenty-first century. I also don’t think this is relevant because, however admirable his courage and public speaking ability, Martin Luther King, Jr. possessed no supernatural insight.
Mark Engler’s article entitled “Dr. Martin Luther King’s Economics” in the Feb. 1 edition of The Nation illustrates both the ipse dixit use of Dr. King’s memory and the highly questionable nature of much of his thinking. The article tells how the martyred sage would solve contemporary problems of recession, unemployment and foreclosure by describing him as favoring two broad economic programs in the United States: a federal jobs program that would guarantee employment to every individual capable of working and a universal guaranteed income. The latter would not simply maintain every person at level of minimal subsistence, but would lift everyone up to “the median income of society.”
I believe the author of this article quotes and interprets Dr. King accurately. During the last part of his activism, at least, Dr. King does seem to have moved beyond trying to assure voting rights and nondiscriminatory access to public resources and toward wider efforts at restructuring American society. That is precisely why we should reject the portrayal of this historical figure as an image of saintly infallibility. These economic proposals are at best highly debatable and arguably remarkably foolish.
On the first proposal, the sheer cost of a universal federal jobs program is incalculable. It would mean not just creating work for all, but a massive jobs bureaucracy. The cost would entail the drag on our economy of so much artificially produced employment, in addition to wages for bureaucrats and putative workers. If we wanted to ensure a long-term downward spiral for the American economy, this would be an ideal way to go about it.
In providing jobs for everyone, the government could either mandate that each person take the assigned position or provide that all get the jobs that they want. The first is a prescription for universal involuntary servitude, a strange goal for a civil rights leader. The second would mean that we would all be able to do refuse to do any work that falls short of our dreams and desires, which would make it impossible to get some of the most essential jobs in our society done.
There have been some reasonable arguments for a guaranteed minimal national income. The negative income tax plan once considered by the Nixon administration (the higher your income is above a certain amount, the more you pay; the lower your income is below that amount, the more the government pays you) was essentially a universally guaranteed income. Some have argued that such a scheme would be cheaper and more easily administered than our current hodge-podge of government assistance programs. Others have responded that the very fact of guaranteeing everyone an income would simply universalize moral hazard, and also contribute to the problem of filling the least desirable jobs. Most plans for a guaranteed income, though, make explicit the fact that the level of support would be minimal. Dr. King’s suggestion that all be supported at the “median income of society” was, to put it bluntly, looney. It isn’t just that giving everyone a comfortable standard is beyond our capability or that to attempt to do so would be as economically destructive as trying to give everyone cushy jobs. This would be logically impossible. A median is a mid-point that divides cases into half below and half above. If it were possible to make a median a new minimum, there would be a new societal median.
In pointing out that Dr. King was not a very good economic thinker, I do not mean to speak ill of the dead. But I think we should stop pretending that, whatever his virtues may have been, he was anything more than a human being of limited judgment and understanding, like all the rest of us. Speculating on what MLK would have done tells us nothing about what we should do.