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Sentimentality and the Things Left Unseen

One of the characteristics of modern polities, is seems to me, is how often in them tails seem to wag dogs. In part this may be because we can grasp and sympathise with the sufferings of a relatively reduced number of people, whom it is easy to sentimentalise. Surely, we think, so small a problem should be easily soluble by so large a society?

In Great Britain, nearly 5,000 people now sleep rough on the streets every night. This is slightly less than one in 13,000 people, but nevertheless represents an increase of about 100 per cent in the last 7 or 8 years, that is to say from about 2,500. The population of the country increased by nearly 5 million between the years 2006 and 2016, during which period the proportion of homeless families, those with nowhere to live and placed in emergency accommodation at public expense, halved.

I do not want at all to deny the extreme unpleasantness or dangers of sleeping rough in a cold climate. I can never pass a person sleeping in the doorway of a shop or other building without wanting to give him some money (such people, incidentally, are disproportionately male, five or six to one), irrespective of the antecedents of his predicament. But such feelings and individual actions are one thing, policy another.

The left-wing populist leader of the opposition party in Britain, Jeremy Corbyn, an admirer of the Hugo Chavez school of solution to poverty and social problems, has said that his government, should he form one, would immediately buy 8,000 homes to “give” housing to the people who slept on the street. This, of course, would immediately create more than 3,000 homes to be ‘given’ to people yet to sleep on the street, a supply that would probably create a demand, indeed an excess demand, creating the need for further supply.

From whom, and under what conditions, would Mr. Corbyn “buy” the homes? In so far as he answered this question at all, he said that he would buy them on foreign speculators in London property, who bought luxury flats in newly-constructed blocks not to live in them but to make a capital gain when prices had risen. It was disgraceful, he said, some people should be doing this while others slept in doorways.

Mr. Corbyn’s thought, if such it can be called, was stuck in a primitive, almost pre-Bastiat stage: he saw people sleeping in the doorways, he saw flats standing empty, what would or could be easier, then, than to get the people sleeping in the doorways into the flats? The only result of this would be to make some people cosy who before had been cold, which of course is wholly and unequivocally desirable.

Someone should do the country a favour and send Mr Corbyn the essays of Frédéric Bastiat, and in particular his What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen:

There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.

In essence, Mr. Corbyn thinks that expropriation and redistribution according to his view of what is right is the route to justice and prosperity. One might have hoped that the world had had sufficient experience of such notions to extinguish them from the human mind forever, but foolishness, like hope, springs eternal.

There is no doubt that Britain has a housing problem, or that the housing stock, like much of its infrastructure, is barely sufficient for its population. The reasons for the housing problems are various. The population has grown rapidly, largely as a result of immigration. Much of that immigration has been beneficial, but not all of it: at least 350,000 immigrants from Europe are unemployed, who must nevertheless be housed though being without income, or taxable income at any rate. The number of houses or flats necessary per million of population has risen because of a dramatic increase in the last fifty years of single person households. This increase is itself of complex origin, but among the most important causes is the ease with which men walk away from their obligations both to their children and to the mothers of their children. If the social security system does not mandate paternal irresponsibility, it certainly makes much of it possible. A quarter of British children now live in single parent households, and many of their fathers live on their own. The numbers of single fathers dwarf those of the homeless living on the streets, a fact that suggests that Mr. Corbyn, like most politicians, prefers easy targets to the difficult but vastly more important ones that require courage to target.

The homeless in the streets are the tail that Mr. Corbyn would like to wag the dog of the rule off the law. To appeal to both the sentimentality of the electorate, who would feel it obscene even to enquire the reasons why the street-dwellers find themselves in such a predicament (among them, importantly, are drug-addiction, alcoholism, incompatibility with their friends and relatives and psychosis), and to the xenophobic resentment of rich foreigners who can afford to speculate in London property, he is prepared to destroy his country’s reputation for probity and predictability in its laws of private property, a reputation that can be destroyed in a week but not restored in a decade, and which is vital to its future prospects.

But Mr. Corbyn cares nothing for that: he is dazzled by his own virtuous vision, his mirage or his hallucination of social justice. Perhaps the most telling word in his proposal, because uttered so unselfconsciously, was the word “give”: his government would “give” the homeless a house or a flat, having first confiscated it, or at least bought it compulsorily at any price it chose. This in turn implies that he saw all that existed in his country as being legitimately in his gift or in his power to withhold. No doubt he would deny this corollary of his proposal: but in the modern world there is no totalitarian as dangerous as he who does not realise that he is one.

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on March 05, 2018 at 09:05:36 am

From whom, and under what conditions, would Mr. Corbyn “buy” the homes? In so far as he answered this question at all, he said that he would buy them on foreign speculators in London property, who bought luxury flats in newly-constructed blocks not to live in them but to make a capital gain when prices had risen.

That’s about all I could find regarding Corbyn’s proposal. (He made this proposal a month ago. If it were a serious proposal, surely there’s be some more details by now?)

Specifically, I have not found any support for Dalrymple’s accusation that Corbyn plans to confiscate private property, or even to condemn it for less than its market value. Yes, some people oppose government condemnation rights, but they’ve been a part of British common law from time immemorial, so using them hardly makes Corbyn radical.

Now, the idea of targeting foreigners is more problematic.

In contrast, it’s less clear that the idea of targeting unoccupied residential property poses any unique legal problems. Consider the law of adverse possession: This law permits a person to gain title to apparently abandoned real property if the person occupies that land in some conspicuous manner—for example, maintaining a building or farm on it—for a period of (seven?) years. This is a policy that is biased in favor of using land; if a landowner wishes land to remain unoccupied by humans, too bad. If the law of adverse possession has long targeted unoccupied land, I don’t see why Corbyn could not adopt a policy targeting unoccupied property.

All that said, if rich people were truly averse to surrendering their properties at market rates, they could simply lease their properties/pay a caretaker to occupy the properties temporarily. Thus, the policy would likely not do much harm—or much good.

To appeal to both the sentimentality of the electorate, who would feel it obscene even to enquire the reasons why the street-dwellers find themselves in such a predicament (among them, importantly, are drug-addiction, alcoholism, incompatibility with their friends and relatives and psychosis)….

Maybe the public holds these views; maybe not. Dalrymple fails to provide any support for his supposition.

More to the point, he fails to indicate the relevance. True, under the traditional “Continuum of Care” model for dealing with homelessness, homeless people must first “earn” access to government-funded housing by completing certain sobriety programs. But a new model, Housing First, has called the old one into doubt. The new model has demonstrated that even people with chemical dependency and mental health issues do better when given a place to live—and it’s cheaper for society to provide the housing than to provide the other emergency assistance. In the US, where a single night in an urban hospital emergency room can cost thousands of dollars, the case for housing subsidies are not that hard to make.

Of course, the benefit/cost analysis will be influenced by the price of the actual benefits and the actual costs. Medical costs in the UK are lower, and winters (often) less harsh, so maybe the burdens of leaving people homeless aren’t so bad. But if you wanted to undermine the benefit/cost justification, you could scarcely do more than to propose housing the homeless into luxury condos overlooking the Thames. So, yes, that part of Corbyn’s proposal seems loopy.

Finally, regarding the problems of policy being driven by excess sentimentality: I couldn’t agree more. This, I find this post a curious juxtaposition with Dalrymple’s prior post, tut-tutting and pear-clutching over prostitution, as if these incidences provided a basis for evaluating the good done by Oxfam.

That said, on my side of the pond I have a president who is so concerned about shooting victims that he has proposed suspending due process rights of gun owners, and is so concerned over … military preparedness? Steel jobs? … that he has proposed ruinous tariffs against the advice of his economic and military advisors. Not sure if this reflects naive sentimentality, or a calculated populist appeal to uninformed voters. Probably both. And maybe that’s true of Corbyn, too.

This is just my chauvinistic way to say that if you Brits wanna compete on who has the most boneheaded politiicans, bring it on. USA! USA! USA!

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nobody.really
on March 05, 2018 at 11:40:59 am

[I]n the modern world there is no totalitarian as dangerous as he who does not realise that he is one.

“So there are not many fascists in your country?”

“There are many who do not know that they are fascists but will found out when the time comes.”

“But you cannot destroy them…?”

“No,” Robert Jordan said. “We cannot destroy them. But we can education the people so that they will fear fascism and recognize it as it appears and combat it.”

Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls.

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nobody.really
on March 05, 2018 at 11:52:21 am

A bunch of feel good nonsense. I'll support Housing First and taking dwellings for public use if and only if for the first 20 years all of the confiscated property lies in Murray's "super-zips."

Let the Eloi show us Morlocks how it should be done.

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EK
on March 05, 2018 at 23:52:52 pm

Someone needs to read both Piketty's CAPITAL and Pearl S. Buck's THE GOOD EARTH. There are lots of problems for the rich when the poor become too poor that perhaps they should become aware of? (one notes that the gated communities of many places are such that *I* could get over them, and me with my bad hip and all).

The safety net is a safety net for the rich, too.

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excessivelyperky
on March 06, 2018 at 13:19:41 pm

R
Rich get richer, the poor get poorer. Do the holier get holier?

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Kered Ybretsae

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