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Advancing Austrian Economics, Liberty, and Peace

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Making Economic Sense
by Murray Rothbard
(Contents by Publication Date)


Chapter 16
The Homeless And The Hungry

Winter is here, and for the last few years this seasonal event has meant the sudden discovery of a brand-new category of the pitiable: the "homeless."

A vast propaganda effort has discovered the homeless and adjured us to do something about it--inevitably to pour millions of tax-dollars into the problem. There is now even a union of homeless lobbying for federal aid. Not so long ago there was another, apparently entirely different category: the "hungry," for whom rock stars were making records and we were all clasping hands across America. And what has now happened to the Hungry? Have they all become well fed, and so rest content, while the Homeless are held up for our titillation? Or have they too organized a union of the Hungry?

And what of next year? Are we to be confronted with a new category, the "unclothed," or perhaps the "ill-shod"? And how about the "thirsty"? Or the candy-deprived? How many more millions are standing in line, waiting to be trotted out for consideration?

Do the Establishment liberals engaged in this operation really believe, by the way, that these are all ironclad separate categories? Do they envision, for example, a mass of hungry living in plush houses, or a legion of the homeless who are living it up every night at Lutece?

Surely not; surely there are not a half-dozen or so different sets of the ill- served. Doesn't the Establishment realize that all these seemingly unconnected problems: housing, food, clothing, transportation, etc. are all wrapped up in One Big Problem: lack of money? If this were recognized, the problem would be simplified, the causal connections would be far clearer, and the number of afflicted millions greatly reduced: to poverty, period.

Why aren't these connections recognized, as even Franklin Roosevelt did in the famous passage of his second inaugural where he saw "one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, and ill-nourished?" Presumably, FDR saw considerable overlap between these three deprivations. I think the Establishment treats these problems separately for several reasons, none of them admirable. For one reason, it magnifies the hardship, making it appear like many sets of people suffering from grave economic ailments. Which means that more taxpayer money is supposed to be funneled into a far greater number of liberal social workers.

But there is more. By stressing particular, specific problems, the inference comes that the taxpayer must quickly provide each of a number of goodies: food, housing, clothing, counseling, et al. in turn. And this means far greater subsidies to different sets of bureaucrats and special economic interests: e.g. construction companies, building trade unions, farmers, food distributors, clothing firms, etc. Food stamps, housing vouchers, public housing follow with seemingly crystal-clear logic.

It is also far easier to sentimentalize the issues and get the public's juices worked up by sobbing about the homeless, the foodless, etc. and calling for specific provision of these wants far easier than talking about the "moneyless" and calling upon the public merely to supply do-re-mi to the poor. Money does not have nearly the sentimental value of home and hearth and Christmas dinner.

Not only that: but focusing on money is likely to lead the public to begin asking embarrassing questions. Such as: WHY are these people without money? And isn't there a danger that taxing A to supply B with money will greatly reduce the incentive for both A and B to continue working hard in order to acquire it? Doesn't parasitism gravely weaken the incentives to work among both the producer and the parasite class?

Further, if the poor are without money because they don't feel like working, won't automatic taxpayer provision of a permanent  supply of funds weaken their willingness to work all the more, and create an ever greater supply of the idle looking for handouts? Or, if the poor are without money because they are disabled, won't a permanent dole reduce their incentive to invest in their own vocational rehabilitation and training, so that they will once again be productive members of society? And, in general, isn't it far better for all concerned (except, of course, the social workers) to have limited private funds for charity instead of imposing an unlimited burden on the hapless taxpayer?

Focusing on money, instead of searching for an ever-greater variety of people to be pitied and cosseted, would itself tend to clear the air and the mind and go a long way toward a solution of the problem.

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