It’s a conversation I’ve had in Washington, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and, on three occasions, in San Francisco. Someone from the local population, assuming I didn’t, apologizes for the homelessness problem. I murmur that it is indeed tragic, but that I have seen bad elsewhere. (Not in OECD countries.)
After a while, it becomes embarrassingly obvious that we are for different purposes. What offends the other person is that they sleep rough here. Their city is soft and therefore a lighthouse. Luckily, someone will drive all the tarpaulin villages out of sight. That there is a more universal answer, starting with “w” and ending with “elfare state” is a thing I am too good a guest to ever press.
Such cold hearts. Such greed. But then some of these interlocutors are more prolific donors of time and money to charity than I have ever been. Some are from progressive to moderate in most issues of the hour. Some are my friends, and they wouldn’t be if I kept them beasts or misers.
The problem is not malice. It is innocence. Their sincere belief in the market is more or less a meritocratic system: a revision of one’s work ethic and character. Whatever outcomes it brings, therefore, no matter how sad, they are a kind of Revealed Truth.
If you believe there is a strong link between the desert and the reward, you have to believe – you have to – that rough sleepers are waiting for it. You have left no room for the role of happiness in human affairs: because of mental illness, birth in a hopeless family, a difficult education, or a middle life that falls through a hole of circumstance. You are guilty of epic, almost operatic naivety. But you’re not vindictive, per se. You are not selfish. You’re Candide, not Scrooge.
This difference is more than academic. The left will never build support for the welfare state until it enters the minds of those who hold on. He currently has a notion as a cartoon villain of what drives a congressional Republican, a libertarian billionaire, or even a middle-income norm for whom rough sleepers are “losers”. If it was only a matter of cold personal interest, these people would, I think, support the social safety net. An increase in taxes per person for funding would be small. The reward – that there is no need to run syringes and ordinances in larger cities – is huge. You don’t have to know your John Rawls to see that the selfish argument for a higher economic minimum is as strong as the just one.
No, they resist because they think it’s wrong in principle. They think it is a loophole in outcomes (or rather, incomes) that, however unequal, were justly conceived. What they are putting on the market is the reckless but deep trust that a certain generation in England places in “our courts”, or that a confused spiritual prankster could put in “karma”. The idea is good will. These people don’t giggle at the poor from their counters. They “only” underestimate how much in life comes down to heritage and other forms of chance. Their failure is the result of imagination, not conscience.
This attitude is present everywhere. But a republic based on the idea that one’s life is fully authorized will be unusually prone to it. If Europe has less acute homelessness (though still too much), it is not because the people there are kinder. This is certainly not a doctrinal connection to “socialism”. Perhaps it is only that centuries of feudalism have left the basic popular consciousness of the whims of birth.
The Enlightenment idea of the individual, which was English, Dutch, and French before it was American, is filtered through that sieve of realism. Political scientist Eileen McDonagh has shown that monarchies are often pioneers of prosperity. Many social reformers were blue-blooded who looked at meritocracy through a yellow eye. Imagine Bismarck or Shaftesbury. Imagine, for that matter, Franklin Roosevelt.
In the harsh DC winter of 2018, my evening companion nodded anxiously to a beggar as our Uber passed him in the mud. Then, in the way sadness-not-anger is, he wondered how man could have made such self-defeating “choices”. It is to the core, this belief and a rare feature of the New World that I will not miss.
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