I’d like to coin a new term: The Law of Good Intentions. This law predicts that perverse effects almost always flow from well-intentioned regulations, restrictions or bans. Some people call it the “Law of Unintended Consequences.” And that’s accurate, but that term only implies the source of all the heartache that invariably flows from the regulatory apparatus. I want to shift the focus onto intentions because people usually use intentions to claim the moral high ground.
Consider the latest example from Houston, which should serve as an object lesson. According to the Houston Chronicle:
Bobby and Amanda Herring spent more than a year providing food to homeless people in downtown Houston every day. They fed them, left behind no trash and doled out warm meals peacefully without a single crime being committed, Bobby Herring said.
That ended two weeks ago when the city shut down their "Feed a Friend" effort for lack of a permit. And city officials say the couple most likely will not be able to obtain one.
"We don't really know what they want, we just think that they don't want us down there feeding people," said Bobby Herring,...
I’ll tell you you exactly what they want, Bobby. They want to protect their monopoly.
This may sound cynical, but such regs are seldom motivated by pure concern for the health and safety of homeless people, or anybody else. They are motivated by greed and power. (Consider stories in the City of Raleigh where restaurants have colluded with the city to restrict street vendors and food trucks.)
In Houston, the philanthropy sector represents competition for the army of social workers paid by the city. Regulatory zeal is a big factor, of course. There are plenty of people who believe they have a mandate to control people’s behavior--whether or not said behavior has a net positive effect on the condition of the city’s homeless.
Here’s what Houston’s social work monopoly has to say about the matter:
Anyone serving food for public consumption, whether for the homeless or for sale, must have a permit, said Kathy Barton, a spokeswoman for the Health and Human Services Department. To get that permit, the food must be prepared in a certified kitchen with a certified food manager.
The regulations are all the more essential in the case of the homeless, Barton said, because "poor people are the most vulnerable to foodborne illness and also are the least likely to have access to health care."
Kathy Barton’s doublespeak is exactly the type of thing we’ve come to expect from public functionaries trying to justify their existence in the era of cutbacks.
What is the relevant difference between the risks you take when I invite you over for dinner and the risks a homeless person takes when they accept food from a private restaurant or soup kitchen run by people who care? “Foodborne illness” is a canard.
What’s so crazy about Houston’s rationale is that most homeless people are willing to take inordinate risks--so many, in fact, that they have ended up, well, homeless. Before howls of “blaming the victim” go up from the MSW crowd, consider this:
In a cross-sectional study of 900 homeless individuals ... investigators from Washington University in St. Louis determined that nearly 88% of the homeless men and 84% of the homeless women who abused alcohol had been diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder in the year before becoming homeless. Similarly, for drug abuse, 78% of men and 69% of women were diagnosed with a drug use disorder in the year before becoming homeless.
The point here is not to say homeless people deserve their lot. Nor is it to argue they have made bad choices in life. Many are mentally ill and/or addicted to drugs. The point is that the risks of getting sick from philanthropic foodstuffs are so negligible compared with all the other risks homeless people face, it would be funny it weren’t so sad. In other words, the benefits of good people helping the hungry far outweigh the so-called “public health” risks. And yet the the regulatory state comes down like a blunt instrument not upon the kind-hearted, but upon the homeless. And this ensures that the homeless in Houston either a) go hungry, or b) flock to the government shelter. And b) is what the city would like.
Make no mistake: People like Kathy Barton want to see the homeless get their meals from functionaries because the functionaries are a special interest group. You think I’m being cynical? People say and do all sorts of things to keep their paychecks rolling in. (Read accounts of the self-serving social services nexus by Chris Norwood in New Threats to Freedom, as a powerful example.)
It's one thing to demand compulsory compassion from your fellow citizens, it's quite another to crack down on compassion. Most of the time, justification for state overreach come from a purported desire to help people. In the case of Houston, however, the most vulnerable population is being harmed. And let’s not forget: people have rights. Homeless people, despite their lot, are not wards of the state. They are free individuals who should have the right to accept charity from whomever they please. Shame on anyone who says otherwise.
Max Borders is a writer living in Austin. He blogs at Ideas Matter.