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Pay the Homeless?

The long read editorial linked below is about the homeless. But that’s not what I want to comment on. The author tells of an early experience he had that shaped his view of the homeless. One day he purchased some pretzels for a homeless man to have something to eat. The man was thankful but said the pretzels were useless to him as his teeth were in such poor condition he could not eat them. That caused the author to realize something important – he didn’t know what the homeless, or the poor, needed. He writes, “When someone asks me for cash, I don’t second-guess what he wants it for. I don’t assume I know what he needs. I give him my money if I have some. In truth, Sir Angus Deaton, a Nobel Prize winner in economics, wrote in The Great Escape (2013), “there are no experts on what poor family ‘needs’—except perhaps the poor family itself.””

That’s made me think of socialism. No government can know what someone needs Yet the entire premise of socialism is predicated on the idea that they know just that. The socialists believe they know what is important to each individual and seek to craft a world in which all those needs are met. That sounds like a noble goal at first. Need and exists and you desire to fill it. But when we realize that the author of this editorial is right in saying we cannot know, then we see the rust forming on the brilliant idea of socialism. It seeks to know the unknowable. Add to that the fact that it can only take care of those guessed at needs by taking something from someone else. Something that the person who is losing it just might need. But they can’t know that either. They can’t know that the person receiving needs and they can’t know that the person they are taking from doesn’t need. They assume that he doesn’t need it, they take it, and assume someone else does need it, or at least needs it more.

Socialism isn’t a humane system.

It isn’t the system of righteous people seeking to do good. It’s the system of fools too stupid to know what they don’t know.

The author also brings up another interesting point about those we might consider on the right of this issue.

He points out that many don’t give to the homeless because they believe the homeless person will just misuse the money on drugs, cigarettes, or alcohol. Even if they also use it on food, these people argue – correctly – that the individual would have more money for food if they didn’t spend some of it on booze. Both groups, the socialist and the conservative (what else could we call them) decide that they know best about the life of the other person. That person, they are sure, should live the way they live, or at least the way they pretend to live when hiding their own failings. The money is given, or withheld based upon the calculated (guessed at really) virtue of the other person. They do not see the other person as having enough intrinsic value to warrant the money. The socialist finds this judgement to be wicked and would force the other to give the money.

Finally, the author writes about a homeless woman named Suzanne (a pseudonym) who begs for money when “things get tight” to help her and her children get by. She comments on that kind of value judgement by saying she wouldn’t ask if she didn’t need it. That it’s hard to ask and it takes a lot for her to ask. She has her pride after all. “Suzanne endures a lot to secure small amounts of money. “It’s a very nerve-wracking or frightening experience because of all the rejection and judgment you get,” she told me. “You get so much backlash over nothing. It’s just some change.”

It’s just some change.

If it’s just some change then why does Suzanne want it so badly? Even Suzanne is making a judgement about what someone else needs or doesn’t need. She assumes the person walking down the street who doesn’t put money in her cup is greedy. She assumes that the person who puts money in her cup has it to spare. Neither may be true. Like the widow and her mite the person donating may be giving all they have to give. They may go without by virtue of that gift. Or the person who doesn’t give might have just spend their last dime on a doctor. Suzanne doesn’t know.

The author writes, “The luxury of ignoring a panhandler’s request is an avoidance of their humanity…”

But the author cannot know that. He only assumes that ignoring their request is a “luxury”. Perhaps it is the only choice the other person has. Perhaps, to the person who would give, but cannot, they walk away pained and the other person’s humanity lingers with them throughout the day as a reminder of their own circumstance, their own humanity and the position they find themselves in that means they cannot help a fellow human being.

No one has the right to say – on behalf of another – that’s it’s only  some change and that failure to give that change means you are a hard-hearted person who doesn’t see or care about the humanity of others. Each person, who possess money, decides for themselves what to do with that money. They may be wrong about the reasons they use to distribute it. They may assume a thing that isn’t right. That’s lamentable that it happens, but it is to be expected. That failure to judge correctly doesn’t give the would be recipient the right to demand the money or feel slighted that you haven’t given. Nor does it give someone the right to take the money and hand it over to the very person you had decided not to give it to.

As I ponder all this I realize that to give or not to give is a moral choice but to take or expect is a matter of imposing your will on someone else. To desire what someone else has and to assume they don’t need it at all or at least not as much as someone else does is the root of an evil. It doesn’t matter if you are demanding someone else’s property for yourself and your needs or if you are demanding it on behalf of another who you think needs it more, your cause is not just.

Right or wrong in their choices, people must be left free to make them.


It’s time to end the pernicious myth that giving money directly to panhandlers won’t help them.

Source: Pay the Homeless

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