Altruism and the Homeless

Last week, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced plans to reduce panhandling and homeless encampments in Houston. A part of the plan is the construction of “low-level shelters” under freeway underpasses. The mayor intends to introduce an ordinance that will ban tents on public property, and the taxpayer funded shelters will provide an alternative.

Turner’s “holistic” approach to homelessness also includes

pledging to house 500 chronically homeless people within the next six months, working with a local nonprofit to add 215 shelter beds by August, launching an anti-panhandling awareness campaign, encouraging groups who feed the homeless to coordinate with the city, and adding mental health and substance abuse treatment to the city’s legislative agenda.

Houston is already facing a budget deficit, and the mayor wants to add another costly, altruistic project to the city’s improper functions.

According to the Chronicle, the city spent $20 million on homelessness in 2015. It is probably safe to assume that the mayor’s plan will increase that amount because altruistic spending almost never decreases. The reason for this is built into the very concept of altruism.

Altruism holds that individuals have a moral responsibility to satisfy the needs of others. But human needs are virtually unlimited, and no matter how much money is spent, there will always be unfulfilled needs. Further, many individuals would prefer to forsake responsibility for their own life and allow others to provide for them. The number seeking aid for their needs invariably grows, and more and more tax dollars are thrown at the problem.

Altruism also holds that we are not to judge others. The reasons for their plight are irrelevant. If they have a need, we have an obligation to satisfy it. Our own personal judgment is irrelevant, and government will use its coercive powers to ensure that we meet our alleged moral responsibilities.

Turner’s plan is doomed to fail, as any plan based on altruism must ultimately fail. But that won’t stop him (or his successors) from trying. In the meantime, taxpayers will be forced to finance another boondoggle.

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