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Why homelessness is still with us

It is a conversation I have had in Washington, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and, on three occasions, in San Francisco. Someone local, surmising that I am not, apologises for the homelessness problem. I mumble that it is tragic indeed, but that I have seen as bad elsewhere. (In OECD countries, I haven’t.)

After a while, it becomes awkwardly evident that we are at cross-purposes. What aggrieves the other person is that the rough-sleepers are here. The city is a soft touch and therefore a beacon to them. With luck, someone will shoo all the tarpaulin villages out of sight. That a more universal answer exists, starting with “w” and ending with “elfare state”, is a point that 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 cash to charitable causes than I have ever been. Some are progressive-to-moderate on most questions of the hour. Some are friends of mine, and wouldn’t be if I held them to be brutes or misers.

The problem isn’t malevolence. It is innocence. Theirs is a sincere belief in the market as a more or less meritocratic system: an audit of one’s work ethic and character. Whatever outcomes it throws up are therefore, however sad, a kind of Revealed Truth.

These people aren’t cackling at the poor from their counting houses. They ‘just’ underrate how much in life comes down to inheritance and other forms of randomness

If you believe there is a solid link between deserts and reward, you must believe — you must — that rough-sleepers have it coming. You have left yourself no room for the role of luck in human affairs: of mental illness, of birth into a hopeless family, of dire education or mid-life tumbles down the potholes of circumstance. You are guilty of epic, almost operatic naivety. But you are not vindictive, per se. You are not selfish. You are Candide, not Scrooge.

This difference is more than academic. The left will never build support for a welfare state until it gets inside the heads of the hold-outs. At present, it has a cartoon-villain idea of what drives the Congressional Republican, the libertarian billionaire or even the middle-income normie for whom rough-sleepers are “bums”. If it were just cold self-interest, these people would, I think, support a social safety net. The per-person increase in tax to fund it would be small. The prize — not having to run a gauntlet of syringes and ordure in major cities — is huge. You don’t need to know your John Rawls to see that the selfish case for a higher economic minimum is as strong as the righteous one.

No, they resist because they think it is wrong in principle. They think it tampers with outcomes (or rather, incomes) that are, however unequal, justly begotten. What they put in the market is the unthinking but deep trust that a certain generation in England puts in “our courts”, or that a confused spiritual dabbler might put in “karma”. The good will out, is the idea. These people aren’t cackling at the poor from their counting houses. They “just” underrate how much in life comes down to inheritance and other forms of randomness. Their failure is one of imagination, not conscience.

This attitude is present everywhere. But a republic founded on the idea that one’s life is wholly self-authored is going to be unusually prone to it. If Europe has less acute homelessness (though still far too much), it is not because people there are kinder. It is certainly not a doctrinal attachment to “socialism”. It might just be that centuries of feudalism have left a basic folk awareness of the vagaries 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. The political scientist Eileen McDonagh has shown that monarchies are often the pioneers of welfarism. Lots of social reformers were blue-bloods who viewed meritocracy through a jaundiced eye. Think Bismarck or Shaftesbury. Think, for that matter, Franklin Roosevelt.

In the raw DC winter of 2018, my companion for the evening nodded with concern at a beggar as our Uber passed him in the sludge. Then, in a sorrow-not-anger kind of way, he wondered how a man could have made such self-defeating “choices”. It is marrow-deep, this belief, and a rare feature of the New World that I won’t miss.

Email Janan at janan.ganesh@ft.com

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