David R. Henderson  

Without Government Who Would Hassle People Who Help the Poor?

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A Malibu church that has helped the homeless for years has been asked to stop feeding people who are down on their luck.

No, this is not the Onion. This is from a news story about the city government of Malibu asking the United Methodist Church not to feed homeless people.

It appears that all the city government did was ask rather than force the church to stop. I'm disappointed that the church didn't respond with a resounding no.


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COMMENTS (14 to date)
john hare writes:

Interesting comments over there on the linked story. The majority of them would be laughed off the table here, though a small minority address real issues. One being that government feeding the homeless is another argument for government control.

On one back and forth I would be interested in feedback from commenters here. Someone suggested drug testing the homeless and not feeding those positive. Another suggested that if they couldn't afford food, they certainly couldn't afford drugs.

Thaomas writes:

I was disappointed by the shallowness of the story. What were the reasons for the City's request? What were the reasons for the church's accession to the request? This seems just too bad to be (entirely) true.

Greg G writes:

Without government private individuals would take care of hassling people who help the poor. Probably a lot of the same ones behind doing it through government.

When governments try to stop churches and charities from doing things that attract the homeless it is usually because people who live nearby are seeking to live in an area where they are surrounded by a wealthier class of people than that.

In areas with government this is usually done through zoning restrictions. In an anarchist society it would simply be done by wealthy people coming together and agreeing to form an exclusive neighborhood.

Arnold Layne writes:

I’m surprised you’re not acknowledging that there may be logical reasons for the government’s request. It’s evidence that any ideology (including libertartian) can blind even the smartest people to basic scientific and economic effects:
1) Moral hazard: Rewarding homeless people who choose to refuse assistance from shelters (private and government) and instead live on the streets
2) Unintended consequences: You want to help, but at the end of the day, you’re making things worse for the homeless by enabling destructive behavior
3) Tragedy of the commons: Homeless monopolizing free public space and making it unusalble for others
4) Others?

Jon Murphy writes:

@Thaomas

What were the reasons for the City's request?

The only thing the article says is that the city said the homeless shelter was increasing the number of homeless. Like you, I wish there were more details. The only way I can think this is correct is that the city thinks people go to the city to be homeless because they take better care of them? But even then, shutting down the homeless shelter wouldn't necessarily reduce homelessness; it'd just relocate the homeless.

@Arnold Layne:

1) Moral hazard: Rewarding homeless people who choose to refuse assistance from shelters (private and government) and instead live on the streets

I don't understand your argument here. The homeless shelter in question is one of those providing assistance, so how is offering food rewarding homeless people for refusing assistance?

Regarding "destructive behavior:"

I think this is somewhat of an unfair characterization. Anecdotally, I worked with the homeless when I lived in New Hampshire (and this is anecdotal evidence, so take it for what it's worth). With the exception of just a small number, most were homeless not because of destructive behavior, but because of the lack of a support system. They may have had a mental illness or something and their family abandoned them. Some were recovering drug addicts who had no support from families. These people are good people who have been dealt a losing hand; giving them some comfort in the world is not a bad thing to enabling their behavior. These people are not choosing homelessness, and most of the time it is through no fault of their own.

Khodge writes:

@Arnold Layne
I am not comfortable relying on the goodness and greater wisdom of the government. (Most readers of Henderson's columns probably agree.)
The Church is a Christian Church and their mission, set by Christ, is to feed the poor. ("Teach a man to fish..." is not a story from the Gospel.)

BC writes:

Some people don't want homeless in their neighborhoods, so they "ask" churches to stop feeding those homeless. Others don't want the foreign born in their countries, so they get the government to forcibly stop all people from hiring or selling housing to those foreign born.

Some claim that the foreign born have no right to work for a firm simply because the firm wants to hire them nor a right to live in a home simply because the property owner wants to sell or rent to them. I suppose if one follows that logic through to its conclusion, then the homeless similarly have no right to eat food simply because a church wants to feed them. If a firm has no right to choose its employees and a property owner/seller has no right to choose his tenants/buyers, then I guess it follows that a charity has no right to choose its beneficiaries.

BC writes:

To be fair, maybe those objecting to the church's activities don't oppose all feeding of homeless; maybe they just want some "common sense" limits. For example, maybe they would be ok with the government issuing some limited number of permits, either through lottery or a point system, that would allow selected homeless to eat at the church. Then, the church could use an E-verify system to confirm that the people they were feeding were authorized to eat.

James writes:

@Greg G

You write: "Without government private individuals would take care of hassling people who help the poor. Probably a lot of the same ones behind doing it through government."

You raise a good point. If these people didn't have access to a government, they could still hassle others privately, at their own expense. But when they have the option to use a government to do this at taxpayer expense, they choose it and the government goes along with it.

This is in liberal Malibu where politicians keep telling the electorate that the government, if given enough power, will use that power to promote justice and fairness.

Greg G writes:

James,

There are vanishingly few very wealthy neighborhoods that welcome the homeless. I am more inclined to think of Malibu as an ordinary example of this general phenomenon than an extraordinary example of unusual hypocrisy.

When wealthy people have the option to keep homeless people out of their neighborhoods they usually exercise that option with and without government. As for using the taxpayer's money to do so, I often read on libertarian blogs how much of the taxpayer's money consists of wealthy people's money. Wealthy people tend to dominate government especially the governments of wealthy local communities.

Fred Anderson writes:

I wonder if the church doesn't have grounds to sue the mayor & councilmen for violating their freedom to practice their religion as they see fit.

David R Henderson writes:

@Fred Anderson,
I wonder if the church doesn't have grounds to sue the mayor & councilmen for violating their freedom to practice their religion as they see fit.
I doubt it. As the news story says, the city government asked. There’s nothing illegal or unconstitutional about asking.

John Cochrane writes:

I don't know this particular case, but there have been many like it before -- homeless shelters and churches often don't abide by all the rules and regulations that restaurants have to abide by, including food storage, handling, not serving past-due foods, work regulations, and so on. Your average bake sale is wildly illegal -- cookies cooked in uninspected home kitchens.

Khodge writes:

@BC
"Authorized to eat." That is one tough standard.

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