Mon. Jan 24th, 2022


This is a conversation I had in Washington, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and, on three occasions, in San Francisco. Someone locally, who suspects I am not, apologizes for the homelessness problem. I mumble that it is indeed tragic, but that I have seen it elsewhere as bad. (In OECD countries I do not.)

After a while, it becomes uncomfortably clear that we have cross goals. What makes the other person angry is that the robbers are here. The city is a gentle touch and therefore a beacon for them. With luck, someone will push all the sailing villages out of sight. That a more universal answer exists, starting with “w” and ending with “elfare state”, is a point I’m too good a guest to ever press.

Such cold hearts. Such greed. But then some of these conversation partners are more productive donors of time and cash for charity than I ever was. Some are progressive-to-moderate on most questions of the hour. Some are friends of mine, and would not be if I kept them as brute or mortal.

The problem is not malice. This 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 outcome it brings, therefore, is a kind of Revealed Truth, no matter how sad.

If you believe there is a solid connection between deserts and reward, you must believe – you must – that rough-sleepers are coming. You have left yourself no room for the role of happiness in human affairs: of mental illness, of birth in a hopeless family, of awful education or middle age tumbling into the pitfalls of circumstances. You are guilty of epic, almost operational naivety. But you are not vengeful, in itself. You are not selfish. You’re 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 outposts. Currently, it has a cartoon-villainous idea of ​​what drives the Republican of Congress, the libertarian billionaire, or even the middle-income norm for whom looters are “bums.” If it were just cold self-interest, these people, I think, would support a social safety net. The increase per person in taxes to finance it will be small. The price – of not having to walk a glove of spray and order in big cities – is huge. You do not 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 a principle. They think it tampers with outcomes (or rather, income) that, however unequal, has been fairly generated. What puts them in the market is the thoughtless but deep trust that a certain generation in England places in “our courts”, or that a confused spiritual brave might put in “karma”. The good will out, is the idea. These people do not shit the poor out of their counties. They “only” underestimate how much in life amounts to inheritance and other forms of arbitrariness. Their failure is one of imagination, not conscience.

This attitude is present everywhere. But a republic based on the idea that one’s life is completely self-authored is going to be extraordinarily prone to it. If Europe has less acute homelessness (though still far too much), it is not because people there are friendlier. This is certainly not a doctrinal attachment to “socialism”. It may just be that centuries of feudalism have left a basic national consciousness of the whims of birth.

The Enlightenment idea of ​​the individual, who was English, Dutch and French before it was American, is filtered by that sieve of realism. Political scientist Eileen McDonagh has shown that monarchies are often the pioneers of welfare. Many social reformers were blue-blooded who viewed meritocracy through a jaundice. Think of Bismarck or Shaftesbury. Think, for that matter, Franklin Roosevelt.

In the raw DC winter of 2018, my companion nodded anxiously to a beggar for the evening as our Uber overtook him in the mud. Then, in a way of sadness-not-anger, he wondered how a man could make such self-destructive “choices.” It’s marrow deep, this belief, and a rare feature of the New World that I will not miss.

Email Janan by janan.ganesh@ft.com

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