Monday, 13 July 2015

What We Can Learn From Hobos

     What can we learn from the lives of hobos? Quite a bit, actually, if we are discerning. Back in 1907 W. H. Davies described his life as a tramp in the U.S. in a book entitled, The Autobiography of a Super Tramp. From his friends in the "business" he learned the fine art of identifying the best neighbourhoods and the best people to provide their free meals and pocket money, while they whiled away the rest of the day loafing. Being always interested in sharing quirky stories, I had written on another blog how they used to game the system to obtain free accommodation and meals at taxpayers' expense. The lamentable fact was that it was a deliberately chosen lifestyle, not forced upon them by economic necessity. The real victims of fate presumably spent their time looking for work as well as charity. So what can we learn from this?
     The first point is that this parasitic, and self-defeating lifestyle was only possible because of the misplaced generosity of people who did not trouble to enquire whether they were genuinely needy or just exploiting their kindness. Far be if for me to recommend cold heartedness in the face of professed adversity - merely that you should exercise a bit of discernment. (In the above case, it would have been a different matter if the tramps were given a bit of work to do before they got their handouts.)
     Secondly, if you subsidise anything you will get more of it - even antisocial activities, or behaviour which is not in the long term best interests of the performers. In our present welfare state, that is something which must be constantly in the back of our minds. As a public servant I was often dismayed at how often I was paying people to be sick. As I summarised at the time:
 It is an inescapable drawback of the welfare system that, in helping genuinely needy people you are also financing antisocial behaviour. Thus, in giving money to the needy unemployed, you are also paying people not to work. Obviously, of course, if the dole were a pittance, far fewer people would take up the offer than if it were a fortune, but even in the Bad Old Days, there were individuals who preferred the idleness of begging to the prosperity of hard work.
Likewise, in providing a supporting parent’s pension, you are paying single women to have illegitimate children, and encouraging married couples to split up. In supporting homeless teenagers, you are paying children to run away from home. 
      Thirdly, when assessing public policy, it is important not to judge the possible effects by your own standards. You are not the marginal sort of person who is likely to fall afoul of it. Thus, to take the example of the hobo lifestyle, you can list a number of disadvantages:
  • have to sleep rough;
  • no prospects of getting married and starting a family;
  • no way to putting aside anything for your old age.
     On the other side of the ledger, there is the following advantage:
  • don't have to work.
    You, sitting at home in your comfortable house, with your family around you, and money in the bank, have probably decided that one advantage is outweighed by all the disadvantages. But remember: there were people who took a different approach.
     We see this blinkered view everywhere. "It's ridiculous," you'll hear people say, "to suggest that unemployment benefits encourage people not to work. You can hardly live on the dole!" You can't. You've developed a lifestyle based on your current income. Other people, particularly youngsters from low socio-economic backgrounds, see things differently. A government investigation into recipients of unemployment benefits was able to divide them into six more or less equal categories, from those willing and eager to do any work, anywhere, any time, down to those who preferred to avoid any sort of work at all, with the rest falling somewhere in between.
    "It's absurd to suggest that single parent benefits encourage illegitimacy; the benefit is a pittance." To you it might be. You're a middle class career woman, and when you do have children you want to give them the best start in life. But there are teachers who have heard teenaged girls, when discussing their future plans, say they intended to have a baby and get a council flat and a pension - and some of them did just that. One social worker recorded a woman who, with her daughter approaching sixteen, and knowing she would soon lose the pension and have to look for a job for the first time in her life, went out and found someone to make her pregnant so that she could look forward to another sixteen years at the welfare teat.
     "Of course higher taxes won't discourage work; I need all the take home pay I can get." The trouble is, jobs are created by businessmen working long hours and taking risks in order to make profits. At some point they may well decide that they are making enough, and it is not worth further expanding the business if the tax man is going to take such a large share.
    It's not only economic policy where this short-sightedness occurs, but in social policy. Too often you hear: "How can same sex 'marriage' possibly affect your marriage?" Well, what other people do won't directly affect mine. My wife and I take our vows seriously. We had good role models, and we know what marriage is all about. But it has to be faced that a lot of people are not fortunate enough to have that background. They get their views from popular culture. And when television trivialises marriage with rubbish like Married at First Sight, and governments pretend that non-marriages are the same as real marriages, you can hardly expect those at the margins of society to develop effective relationships. Besides, as Mark Steyn points out in his usually inimitable way, indirectly, we are all affected.