President Barack Obama takes office today on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day for the second time as the first black president of the United States. If his election and re-election represent the fulfillment of Dr. King’s vision in a superficial sense, Obama’s goal of “fundamentally transforming” the United States into a government-centered social democracy represents one of the deeply challenging aspects of Dr. King’s legacy.

The great tragedy of civil rights movements–not just in the United States, but across the world–is that the end of discrimination has been closely tied to the start of state-directed redistribution. The result is that many of those who were formerly held down by the state believe that their success depends on state intervention. And the terrible irony is that the state’s role ensures that many who begin their freedom on the bottom rung, stay there.

In the U.S., the end of Jim Crow in the South was swiftly followed by the Great Society, which created perverse incentives for individuals not to work and families to split apart. In South Africa, affirmative action actually came before the end of apartheid, because the white minority government wanted to create a small black middle class as a buffer against political change. “Black economic empowerment” after apartheid enriched a few wealthy, politically-connected blacks while the many of the poorest became poorer.

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