Touching A Sacred Cow

April 20, 2012

Charity, Economy, Finance

With federal, state and municipal services in retrenchment mode perhaps it’s time to explore some alternatives, even it means challenging some sacred cows. For example, those of us who live in the San Francisco Bay Area, have become virtually inured to the sight of homeless persons on our streets, but how many of us have done something about it? I’m not talking about the occasional twenty dollar bill guiltily thrust into an outstretched hand but rather about ‘real help’, the kind of help that would involve entering into a relationship with the homeless person to identify his or her real needs, calling around to find an appropriate support network, staying in touch over a longer period etc. Not many of us I’m sure, perhaps none of us. It’s as if we tell ourselves that because some other institutions (federal, state or municipal) have made themselves responsible for taking care of the homeless there is less or no need for us to make any personal effort.

In the 1930’s Albert Jay Nock called this phenomena state power versus social power but nowadays we would probably  describe it as coercion versus voluntarism or civil society. Nock argued that as one waxes so the other wanes. As the extent of coercion increases in a society so the extent of voluntarism or civil society, decreases and vice versa. The more we are taxed to provide for the homeless the less we feel like donating our own time, energy and resources to tackle the problem. Of course there may be nothing wrong with this situation. If the homeless are just as better off receiving benefits from the state or city as from a collection of individuals and benevolent voluntary institutions, then we should be indifferent between the two approaches. But is this true? It certainly would be if all the homeless required is money or a home. But this is far from the case. Approximately one third of the homeless are mentally ill and approximately three quarters are substance abusers. Others simply prefer the homeless lifestyle:

“Sleeping in shelters or on the streets is dangerous, but for a person who has grown up amidst the bullets of drug wars and the knife thrusts of domestic violence, the attraction of free food, medicine, clothes, and lots of leisure time may outweigh the disadvantages.”

This suggests a much more complex and nuanced solution than simply finding all the homeless a home.  In his book The Tragedy of American Compassion, Marvin Olasky references the seventy five percent success rate that CityTeam (formerly San Jose City Mission) achieved in its substance abuse program. The problem was that their solution was not politically correct:

“The keys to success included one-on-one bonding of addicts with volunteers who were usually former addicts themselves, reaffiliation of addicts with family and community, a discerning refusal to accept excuses, and an emphasis on work and responsibility. The cornerstone of the new life, however, was spiritual; participants in the substance abuse program were expected to attend services regularly read the Bible, and learn what God expected them to be.  When county officials, impressed by CityTeam’s success, proposed government funding to expand the program on the condition that the religious requirements be dropped, the offer had to be refused.”

If Nock was right, as debt strapped government, state and municipal authorities are forced to shrink their welfare budgets, we should expect to see a resurgence of voluntarism to take up the slack.  Would it be so surprising if volunteers, working within the institutions of civil society, also do a better job?
“Governing a large state is like boiling a small fish.” Lao Tzu
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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill


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9 Comments on “Touching A Sacred Cow”

  1. insanitybytes22 Says:

    Really well said. I was in San Francisco a few years back and the first thing that hit us was all the homeless. People walking down the middle of the road still attached to IV poles, people in hospital gowns, people sitting on the curb injecting drugs. It was a surreal experience, very disorienting, like some kind of post apocalyptic horror show. We have the same thing in our cities and a huge homeless problem where I live too, but SF is right in your face, up close and personal, fancy people on their way to work, weaving themselves among this teeming mass of suffering.

    In addiction work, in homelessness, you’re often dealing with broken spirits, so you have to provide a spiritual component to their healing. It’s shame that government is so resistant to that idea, because to solve problems you really need to treat people as if they are multifaceted, provide them tools that address the whole person.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      “In addiction work, in homelessness, you’re often dealing with broken spirits, so you have to provide a spiritual component to their healing.”

      Exactly right, although I would argue that it is not so much that government is resistant to the idea but, rather that government bureaucracies are inherently incapable of treating people as individuals. The view from the top is very different from the view from the ground, where all knowledge is local.


  2. Holistic Wayfarer Says:

    I grew up surrounded by the homeless in NYC and find you offer a most compassionate post, MG.

    IB put it well. But it’s not only a weak, shallow understanding of the problem of homelessness (and the addictions that tie/draw people to it), but the charged political matter of church vs. state. Volunteers often can indeed bring about superior results for the passion and conviction (not to mention love in some cases) that pull them into the thicket. There is a man in my church, a Japanese-American who has grandchildren (just to fill in the picture and to show it’s never too late to do good), who took it upon himself to reach out to the many homeless Downtown. Our pastor was blown over to learn this man gathers the homeless in a laundromat once a wk and washes their clothes, mixing his right in with theirs.

    This is hardly anything to speak of but my son is so pleased to be able to put crackers we save in the car in the hands of someone needy, out the car window. The look on his face is priceless, the joy of having helped someone hungry in his own little way.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      HW, those are wonderful stories about the man who owns a laundromat and your son’s expression of joy. Your comment also brings to mind something I’ve been mulling over for some time now. Libertarian types see the cause of most social problems, including homelessness, in terms of distorted incentives and a mal-allocation of resources, both of which are caused by government interference with market forces. While I’m sympathetic to this argument, they miss what you and IB know so well, the all-important spiritual dimension of homelessness. Most libertarians miss it because they simply don’t understand what is meant by spiritual. A typical atheistic techno-libertarian, on hearing the word spirit, will ask you to define it, point to it and examine whether or not it is falsifiable (the latter being a test for a scientific statement). No wonder we still lack solutions to our large social problems and are nowhere near finding them.


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