As I flew home across the country from NYC on January 16th, the holiday this year in honor of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I had the opportunity to watch several programs on television devoted to his legacy. I was especially struck by the fact that commentators – for example, Amy Goodman, the host and executive producer of Democracy Now!, "a national, daily, independent, award-winning news program" – keep imputing to him a welfare statism that seems not to have been part of his thinking. (I have no idea what Democracy Now! is independent of since all the programs on it evidence a distinct perspective, no less so than those on Fox TV.)
During the flight I managed, also, to listen again to the entire speech Dr. King gave in Alabama on the day before he was assassinated. What it was mostly about is freedom, not at all about welfare statism.
There are, admittedly, several senses of the term "freedom" in use. In particular, there is negative and positive freedom. The former is strongly associated with the American political tradition – spelled out, for example, in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights – the latter with the ideas of FDR's New Deal. The first means being free from the intrusions of other people, including government, however well intentioned; the second means being provided with support by others, including the government through its power of taking what belongs to one so as to hand to another. So one is free to do what one chooses to do if one is free in the first sense, while one is free from having to cover one's various expenses in the second sense.
The free society as understood by classical liberals stresses the protection of the freedom of the citizenry with a suitably framed legal system, while the society fashioned by modern liberals stresses government's providing to people what they are said to need by way of confiscatory taxation for this purpose.
It seems to me that Dr. King was talking about the former kind of freedom, freedom from the oppressive acts of most whites toward most blacks, for example. Many of those who today wish to invoke his stature and ideas for their political purposes, however, are talking about the second kind of "freedom or liberty." That is the freedom, so called, that the welfare state is supposed to protect for people, at the expense of those whose resources are confiscated so as to achieve this goal. Yet there are many who insist that Dr. King had in mind the second type of freedom – or perhaps that he believed in both. As one commentator put it, "On that day, Dr. King spoke of two types of freedom – one from 'the chains of discrimination' and one from living on 'a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.' Somehow his first message has been taken to heart while his second has been forgotten." (This is what John Fullerton, founder of Capital Institute, declared in his recent essay on Huffington Post.)
The problem with attributing to MLK this two-pronged idea of freedom is that if it is correct, it makes his ideas incoherent. The first type of freedom just cannot coexist with the second. If A can be coerced to provide support for those who are "living in a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of materials prosperity," then A would have his right to freedom violated. If anytime that someone achieves material prosperity that individual becomes a target of the adjusters who would not accept his or her freedom to make use of it, then such an individual is not free in the first sense. To steal from Peter so as to provide for Paul does not support freedom but servitude.
It is much more sensible to attribute to Dr. King the more coherent view that if the freedom of individuals to do as they choose is properly respected and protected, they will be enjoying the first kind of freedom – freedom from others' intrusions – and become capable of achieving freedom from poverty. Free men and women have generally been quite able to provide for themselves, perhaps with occasional voluntary help from their friends and neighbors. That is one of the lessons of history! It is entirely inappropriate to suggest that one person's poverty authorizes others to take from those who have managed to achieve prosperity. I doubt that Martin Luther King, Jr. didn't grasp something so elementary – it is an insult to his memory to believe that.
Instead, what seems to be happening is that people who are aspiring to rule others are invoking his good name for their coercive purposes. It would be a shame if this were tolerated by all those who admire Dr. King for his championing of human liberty.