The fallacies of social justice and public housing

A “Profile” article in a recent issue of the Greater Wilmington Business Journal (www.wilmingtonbiz.com) featured Katrina Redmon, CEO of the Wilmington Housing Authority (WHA). Much of the puff-piece was about Ms. Redmon and her accomplishments as a female: “I’ve been one of the first females in my positions…I’m proud of that,” she said. She says she crawled through one of the cracks in the “glass ceiling,” presumably put up by men to prevent her from competing with them in the workforce. But that’s another story.

My commentary here relates to public housing as an example of the damage done by reformers meddling in the lives of those they think make irresponsible decisions in life’s choices—reforms that “reflect the vision of cosmic justice” by people who plan with their assumed greater wisdom to correct situations they deem “morally intolerable.”  Dr. Thomas Sowell discusses this related to public housing in his book, “The Quest for Cosmic Justice.”

He describes the “great age of housing reform” when poor European immigrants lived in crowded, Northern urban slums. These people chose to temporarily live that way so they could save money to bring families to America so that all could make better lives in this land of greater opportunities. The reformers passed laws to ban these conditions and set their standards mandating required living space and other conditions by which people must live.

The result: options for the slum-dwellers were limited; housing became much more costly; and people had less purchasing power. This made the reformers feel good about their ideas of social justice, but it prevented the trade-offs preferred by the people deciding how to use their own money.

Living conditions were only a symptom of the poverty these people worked to overcome. They minimized it by foregoing better housing to meet greater needs for food, helping families abroad and “preparing for their children’s rise in American society,” wrote Dr. Sowell. And, he added, “Nineteenth-century crusaders paid no such attention to the housing of Southern blacks and yet that housing improved in a generation as much as the housing in Northern immigrant slums.” Thus, Sowell wrote, “human beings are sacrificed to the tyranny of visions….”

Of course, over the years these social visionaries have not only harmed the people they purport to help, but have put incalculable financial burdens on all of us. (Remember the “War on Poverty” that cost trillions and has had little affect on poverty?)

Ms. Redmon can play around with $100 million, or so, but, hey, “85 percent of the WHA budget comes from federal dollars.” Who cares? And for the social justice crowd there is never enough to carry out their visions: “We should be able to live where we work, so we need to expand,” Redmon proclaims–notice the agency is called an Authority.

The late economist, Dr. Milton Friedman, in his book, “Capitalism and Freedom” includes housing in a list of federal public policies that cannot be validly justified based on the proper use of government.

He notes that paternalism in government activities is the most troublesome because it involves the idea “that some shall decide for others.” No one who values personal freedom wants other people to make decisions for him. We should all be able to spend our money as we wish.

Dr. Friedman notes that one result of public housing is that it imposes higher costs on the community because of the greater need for police and fire protection (that has been a problem in Wilmington for years, with none but superficial visionary solutions in sight).

Logically, then, these places should be taxed higher because they add more to social costs. Of course, social reformers would reject this because low-income people would bear the cost. So that begs the question: “Why subsidize housing in particular”? Surely, these people would rather have the cash to use as they see fit, argues Friedman.

Friedman concludes his argument: “Public housing cannot therefore be justified on the grounds either of neighborhood effects or of helping poor families. It can be justified, if at all, only on grounds of paternalism: that the families being helped ‘need’ housing more than they ‘need’ other things but would themselves either not agree or would spend the money unwisely.”

In my opinion we should abolish public housing projects; save millions of dollars spent on the massive bureaucracies and buildings (WHA has $23 million in annual revenue and “$72 million in assets”) and give cash grants to people in poverty–money they could choose to spend for what they decide they need.

Public housing is only one of many nebulous utopian social reforms that result in more damage to our society. But the social justice visionaries will persist in carrying out their self-serving feel-good projects—at all costs. Sadly, our elected representatives abet them.

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About R. E. Smith Jr.

Mr. Smith writes essays and commentary on politics, American history, environment, higher education and culture. He's been published in print media and at blog sites for about 25 years. Smith's formal education includes B.S. and M.S. degrees from the State University of New York and Syracuse University. He has earned a 21-credit hour Certificate in Professional Writing from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Training/work experience: NYS Ranger School; U. S. Army, Corp of Engineers; soil scientist and forester with USDA; Assoc. Professor at SUNY; real estate agent; small business owner.
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