Theodore Dalrymple, in his book Life at the Bottom, is critical of the excessively individualist view that holds that the “anti-social” homeless should be tolerated as simply those that have chosen a way of life that is in stark contrast to the middle class mainstream. (The rich – by definition not mainstream – can also lead lives remarkably similar to the homeless in some ways, e.g. Lindsay Lohan recently, though they can afford to rescue themselves from their most disastrous and otherwise life-killing choices.)
Dalrymple will score some points from the Liberals in at least one respect with his plea to “do something”. Benign neglect is not an option, and some level of state action, of the Rudy Guilliani sort I assume, is necessary to correct this social perversion. It’s taken for granted that he believes state aid to the homeless, or at least that state aid which is afraid to attach strings and demand reform, is a negative. In this I’d mostly agree, though of course I’d abolish aid altogether, seeing conservative nannyism (“daddyism” perhaps, ala Lakoff?) as simply the right-wing of the welfare state. But Dalrymple goes beyond this, hinting that the mere presence of the homeless on sidewalks is to be corrected. Writing sarcastically he asks,
Who are we to judge in a free country how people should live? Apart from a slight measure of untidiness, the man created no public nuisance. Perhaps, the passersby thought, as they tolerated him nearly to death [emphasis mine], that he was merely doing his own thing, and in the conflict between the imperative to act the good Samaritan and the imperative to respect the autonomy of others, the latter prevailed. In the modern climate, after all, rights always trump duties.
Of course the phrase “tolerate to death” is misleading and confused, as it would mean that by taking no action whatsoever one is contributing to the death of another. Yet by that logic, everyone is guilty to nearly limitless extent of murdering everyone else by neglecting to take some sort of action to mitigate everybody’s likelihood of death. Nonsense.
And of course his pitting of rights vs. duties in this case is erroneous, because the passersby has the right to act as Good Samaritan all they want.
Dalrymple is skeptical of the libertarian view (of at least some libertarians) that the decision to live a life of high time preference, financial profligacy and near-sightedness is also a legitimate one, even as he concedes, however sarcastically, that this nomadic life of poverty and “amusement” may actually be respectable, at least in an “existential” sense. He notes that,
The life they have chosen is not without its compensations. Once they have overcome their initial revulsion at the physical conditions in which they have decided to live, they find themselves secure: more secure, in fact, than most of the population engaged in the struggle to maintain its standard of living and by no means guaranteed of success.
He goes on to say that, secure in their knowledge of state funded hostels and other forms of relief, they can go on living their lives in such a way indefinitely.
I would submit, and no doubt Dalrymple would agree, that minus this state support many would choose to do otherwise. (Or at least those that are truly able to make rational decisions would choose otherwise; the mentally and physically disabled would quite obviously perish, thus legitimating relief wihout reciprocity.) And of course nobody has the right to live at someone elses’s expense. Our disagreement lies with the attitude the state should adopt toward those that merely exist within its jurisdiction and take no aggressive actions – the sidewalk sitter for instance – and the “values” question of whether the “anti-social” attitude and rather bohemian (?) lifestyle should be tolerated, even voluntarily. This blog post deals with the latter point only.
Murray Rothbard, in his essay “Social Darwinism Reconsidered” in the January 1971 edition of The Libertarian Forum, compares two parents who were faced with the choice of subsidizing their hippie children. One parent refused, while,
the other parent…steeped in permissivism, said, after considerable wailing and anguish: “I don’t agree with what you’re doing, but I will always stand behind you and send you money if you need it.” This course virtually insured that his children would continue on the hippie path indefinitely.
Sounds like a pretty cool parent to me. In fact this kind of “subsidy”, I will suggest, is comparable to voluntary donations to the arts. Permissive, liberal, countercultural art.
Dalrymple, Rothbard; Rothbard, Dalrymple. There’s wine and h’orderve’s over by the wall, but don’t indulge too much…