Book review: The Inclusive Economy: How to Bring Wealth to America’s Poor

I could not possibly disentangle my thoughts on The Inclusive Economy from my memories of evenings spent in various DC bars and then the Tanners’ lovely artsy Takoma Park home discussing how to increase social justice through principled libertarian policy. So I won’t try. It’s a lovely book by an even lovelier man and, yes, I’m incredibly biased.

Despite my obvious partiality, I can still say somewhat objectively that it’s a book worth reading even for people who aren’t friends with Mike Tanner and his brilliant and beautiful wife Ellen. It should be required reading, in fact, for anyone who would say that social justice and libertarianism are fundamentally at odds.

What Tanner has done with The Inclusive Economy is to point to what libertarianism has largely missed in the debate over how to deal with the problem of poverty in America. He briefly discusses the history of government anti-poverty efforts, their successes and failures.

To correct a problem, it’s often useful to identify the source. And this is where libertarians do too little to improve upon the weakness of conservative analysis, which tends toward victim-blaming.

Tanner helps correct this imbalance by taking a close, empirical look at the causes of poverty, including structural identity-based barriers to success. He offers an overview of how and why poverty breaks down by race and gender in the US.

“Over the years, I have come to believe that the issue [of poverty] is not as simple as some of my previous work may have portrayed it,” Tanner writes, showing an intellectual humility that is dangerously scarce among public intellectuals. “To the degree that I have previously portrayed poverty issues as government welfare versus pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, I was wrong. Any successful fight of poverty must deal with deeper issues, including those of race, gender, and class in America.”

Yet while progressives have done a better job than conservatives of studying and conveying the causes of poverty in the US, they’ve dropped the ball when it comes to workable, effective solutions. As Tanner expertly explains, the vast majority of anti-poverty programs in the US are shamefully wasteful and ineffective.

Yet rather than throw his hands up like most libertarians and simply yell about cutting funding for these programs, Tanner takes from the best of both sides. Tanner gets in the trenches and studies what progressives won’t admit and conservatives don’t seem to really care about: the governmental barriers to advancement and freedom for our low-income citizens. He’s got a progressive understanding of structural inequality and oppression and a conservative view of how to get the government out of the way of a free and prosperous future.

The first half of the book should be required reading for conservatives and conservative-leaning libertarians. The second half of the book should be required reading for everyone.

In chapters five through nine, Tanner outlines methods for fighting poverty that fit perfectly within libertarian principles. They are, in short, make the criminal justice system more fair and less needlessly punitive, break up the public education monopoly, reduce land use regulation, stop punishing people on public assistance for saving money, and boost economic growth.

I’ve read a decent amount about criminal justice reform, the public education monopoly, and land use regulation, but I still found myself tweeting out new information on each topic as I read through these chapters. The book is well-sourced, and provides lots of extra reading for anyone who wants to learn more.

The Inclusive Economy: How to Bring Wealth to America’s Poor is available December 7, 2018. Pre-order your copy today.

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