Professional Begging

From @edwest :

Police survey finds just one in 10 beggars are homeless

Officers in Nottingham say some of those supposedly living on the streets own their own homes

Now, we should be cautious of this survey: 52 beggars in one possibly-atypical English city.

But if its findings are general, it’s quite an alarming fact. The question of how many beggars are genuinely needy has been a live one since at least ’91 (that’s 1891). But half being homeowners is not what many of us would have guessed.

This issue is a miniature example of the problems of liberal social policy. Because, even if the survey is correct, there are really people in genuine need, homeless and depending on the generosity of passers-by.

However, the simple solution, of giving beggars money as you pass by, just doesn’t work. The people who get the money will largely not be those that need it, but those who are most adept at appearing to need it. By giving money to beggars, you are displacing those that you want to help, pulling in others, even some with their own homes and the ability to do useful work.

And yet, if nobody does anything, the only people on the street will be those with genuinely nothing else to do.

It isn’t just welfare payments (informal by handing out money in the street, or formal through a state benefits system) that have this effect.

In Mary Nichols’ time, there were many women who were trapped in marriages with abusive husbands. The reforms that Nichols and her successors advocated and implemented make it very easy for a wife to escape a marriage.

What is the result? It is not that those women escape their marriages, and everyone in a happy marriage is unaffected. It is that marriage has almost totally broken down, to the point that at least a quarter of people don’t even bother with it. Of those that do, a minority are actually lifelong, because marriage no longer means what it used to. Of those marriages that do last, even they are not the same, because couples lose the assurance that they are in a permanent situation, with the psychological comfort that that provides. And with all that, there are still women trapped in abusive relationships. Those most in need of the benefits of reform are least capable of taking advantage of it.

The beneficial effect of the reform occurs immediately, but the knock-on reshaping of society takes generations. By the time the damage has outweighed the benefit, people are no longer aware of what they have lost.

This same pattern occurs time and time again: from central banks preventing crashes, to health and safety regulations keeping children away from dangers.

It doesn’t follow that when we see something bad, we must assume that whatever we do will make it worse. But any kind of reform would need to be cautious, experimental, and pinned to a statement of what it must not be allowed to sacrifice. There should be a finger on the “revert” button.


3 thoughts on “Professional Begging

  1. Lesser Bull says:

    The easy solutions, like no-fault divorce, are almost always easy because they run in the direction of greater entropy


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