Mises Wire

The Cure for Homelessness

One of most fascinating aspects of progressives (also known as “liberals”) is the blindness they display to the adverse consequences of their very own government programs. Instead of acknowledging what their statist programs do to people and then calling for their repeal, they inevitably call for new government programs to address the ills that their government programs are causing.

A good example of this phenomenon was an article entitled “The Homelessness Crisis Continues. Maybe Libertarians Have a Solution?” which was published last June by a newsweekly in Seattle called The Stranger. The author of the piece was an associate editor at The Stranger named Eli Sanders. Sanders is no dummy. In 2012 he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in featured writing. His book, “While the City Slept,” was a finalist for the Washington State Book Award and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.

Yet, Sanders’ article, which mocks and ridicules libertarians, including me, for their supposed solutions to homelessness is a pathetic display of moral, political, and economic obtuseness. That’s because Sanders, like other statists, simply cannot bring himself to acknowledge and address the two root causes of homelessness, especially in Seattle — zoning and minimum-wage laws, both of which are warmly and enthusiastically embraced by both the left and the right and ardently opposed by libertarians.

What does Sanders say in his anti-libertarian screed? Ignoring libertarian calls for repeal of zoning and minimum-wage laws, he instead lists a number of other supposed libertarian solutions to homelessness, such as “giving homeless people guns,” “doing nothing,” “empowering individuals,” and “ending income taxation” (where he mentions me), all the while implicitly mocking and ridiculing libertarians for not coming up with real solutions to homelessness.

Why does Sanders choose to remain silent about libertarian opposition to zoning laws and minimum-wage laws in the context of the homelessness debate?

The answer is simple: Whether we are dealing with the drug war, the war on poverty, the forever wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, the war on immigrants, or any other statist program, statists have a terribly difficult time acknowledging the failure and destructiveness of their own government programs. They will do everything they can to avoid taking personal responsibility for what their statism has wrought.

The fact is that Seattle is one of the most zoned cities in the country. Its zoning laws date back to 1923! It also has a mandatory minimum wage of $11.50 an hour, with it slated to increase to $15 over the next several years. Surely, Sanders realizes these things. The problem is that his mindset prevents him from connecting the dots. Given that the minimum wage and zoning are so deeply embedded within the statist mindset and within Seattle society, he is unable to bring himself to recognize that these two statist programs are the root cause of the problem he laments — homelessness — and that the solution to homelessness, especially in Seattle, lies in simply repealing the city’s zoning laws and abolishing the national, state, and local minimum-wage laws.

What is zoning? It is a government program that consists of mandatory rules, regulations, and laws that prevents or inhibits low-income housing from being built within a community. It obviously doesn’t occur to Sanders that builders cannot build low-cost housing for the poor in Seattle when zoning laws prohibit them from doing so.

The situation is aggravated by the fact that the poor are locked out of the labor market by the government’s mandatory minimum wage. Suppose, for example, that a homeless man is willing to work for $5 an hour and that an employer is willing to hire him at that price. They can’t make the deal because the law makes it illegal for them to enter into that consensual transaction.

The progressive says, “We are just trying to protect the poor from being exploited.” But that’s ridiculous because a person’s whose labor is not valued by employers at the mandatory minimum isn’t going to be hired at all. He goes unemployed, permanently. The minimum wage law is the reason why there has been a chronic, permanent unemployment rate of 30-40 percent among black teenagers for years. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, an unemployed person is prevented from earning the money he needs for a down payment on those expensive single-family homes that Seattle’s zoning laws mandate. Duh!

I grew up in Laredo, Texas, which the Census Bureau in the 1950s labeled the poorest city in the United States. Laredo did not have zoning. We had a family friend who was a builder. His specialty? Building low-income housing for the poor. He once explained to me that he would travel into Mexico (Laredo is situated on the border) and purchase low-cost building supplies, which enabled him to build low-priced housing that served poor people. His places were always super-clean, super-nice, super-maintained, and super-sold out.

Was my friend doing this out of a sense of altruism and love for the poor? On the contrary. He was doing it to make money. He was the classic example of what people on the left call a no-good, capitalist, profit-seeking, bourgeois swine. And my friend was a wealthy man because poor people loved his housing.

Among the best aspects of my friend’s low-cost housing was that residents weren’t prohibited from making too much money, as people are who live in the federal government’s public housing projects, another favorite program among statists, one that is called into existence to address the homelessness that comes with zoning laws and minimum-wage laws.

Oh, maybe I should mention something that might interest Sanders: There was never a homelessness problem in Laredo. Lots of poverty, yes. But never a homeless problem, like the one that exists in Seattle, with its statist programs of massive zoning and minimum-wage laws.

Let me conclude this article by stating that I plan to send it to Eli Sanders. I’m curious as to whether he would like to write a follow-up piece addressing the actual two main libertarian positions to end homelessness in Seattle: Repeal the city’s zoning laws and all minimum-wage laws. Don’t hold your breath. It’s easier for leftists to attack straw men than to confront the consequences of their favorite statist programs.

Originally published by the Future of Freedom Foundation.

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