The Progressives’ worst mistake is thinking that they know what others want

Homeless woman (photo by dbking)At a certain level, all of us are solipsistic, in that we inevitably exist at the enter of our own universe.  As it is with individuals, so it is with belief systems.  Whether we like it or not, we assume that our way is the way to do things.  That others would do things a different way is invariably a surprise (although, as is the case with Dutch chocolate, often a pleasant surprise).

One of the things that distinguishes the mature mind from the immature mind is the ability to recognize that your way isn’t always the right way.  Sometimes the other person’s (or nation’s) way is fine, even if it seems inadequate.

(As a side note, I’m not discussing moral absolutes here.  I think we’re entitled to be solipsistic about certain moral absolutes, such as “cold-blooded murder is wrong,” cold-blooded stealing is wrong,” “child-beating is wrong.”  Even there, though, we do make distinctions.  Cold-blooded murder is wrong, but we are open to extenuating circumstances.  Cold-blooded stealing is wrong, but it’s probably okay if you’re starving and steal food.  Child-beating is always wrong, of course, except that some describe “beating” as a slap on the butt with a hand, while others describe it as using a child’s head as a battering ram against a wall.  All decent people oppose the second; many decent people, myself included, do not consider that the first constitutes a “beating.”)

Outside of moral absolutes (or moral somewhat absolutes), what remains are behaviors and beliefs.  It’s here that we all fall prey to believing our way is best.  Where conservatives and Progressives differ, though, is that, while conservatives believe their choices are best, they do not believe that it is up to government to impose those choices on others.  They prefer persuasion to coercion. Progressives, however, are sufficiently self-righteous (or emotionally immature) that they believe that they must impose their ways upon others.

What got me thinking about this was a discussion I had with my sister about a couple of homeless men she and her husband have befriended (don’t ask).  Both men are enthusiastically homeless.  They get government checks, but are incapable of — and, more importantly, hostile to — embracing a middle class lifestyle.

The two men live near a city in a somewhat rural area.  They can bike to amenities, but live in a homeless encampment in the woods (which means they offer minimal inconvenience to the bulk of the city’s residents).  One of them built a teeny, portable wooden structure in which he lives, and powers the TV, the lights, the radio, and the electric cook stove with solar panels.  The other dwells in a tent and mooches happily off friends.  They get water from a nearby water pipe that the city makes available to the encampment.  They get free food from various charities, and spend their government checks on food and drugs.

From my middle class, suburban perch, they live a terrible life.  From their point of view, though, they’re free men who have all their needs met:  shelter, food, chemical stimulants.  They don’t want anything more.  Both are a little loopy (one has a mildly aggressive paranoia, while the other believes he communes with alien beings), but neither is rendered dysfunctional by those “quirks.”  They are free to be themselves.  They don’t miss hot showers, and La-Z-Boys, and cars, and the internet, and X-Boxes, and all of the other things with which we fill our lives.  Nor do they miss health insurance, which means that they’re in sync with previously uninsured Oregonians who got Medicaid.  When they’re sick, that’s what the ER is for.  They like that status quo and, despite living in a state that’s embraced government medicine, they refuse to join up.

I thought of these two men when James Taranto pointed out a Fox-Butterfield moment in the San Francisco Comical:

Fox Butterfield, Is That You?
“San Francisco spends $165 million a year on services for homeless people, but all that money hasn’t made a dent in the homeless population in at least nine years.”–Heather Knight, San Francisco Chronicle, March 12

San Francisco has long spent exorbitant sums on the homeless because the Progressive government believes that it can bribe, cajole or co-opt the homeless into adopting a middle class lifestyle.  The experience of 30 years of failure has only convinced the Progressives that they need to spend more.  They cannot comprehend that, while there are people amongst the homeless population who are genuinely down on their luck and need a hand, there are many amongst the homeless who affirmatively embrace that lifestyle.  They are homeless,  not because we (society) have failed them, but because they like the freedom that comes with homelessness.  They have no amenities, but they have no obligations either.

Progressives aren’t insane, notwithstanding the oft-repeated definition of insanity as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”  Solipsism isn’t insanity.  It is, instead, a failure of imagination and an emotional immaturity that makes it impossible for a person or belief system to accept other attitudes and desires.

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  • Robert Arvanitis

    Sorry Book.
    It’s not that the left feels they know what others want.
    The left doesn’t CARE what others want.  Because THEY know better…

  • lee

    The other thing is they think there is one “problem” ergo one “solution.” True of healthcare, health insurance, homelessness, gun violence, etc., etc., etc. So one “solution” gets implemented “for lack of a better word), and the profs are done. If, nine years down the road, it becomes apparent that their “solution” solved nothing, they won’t admit they were wrong–they’ll just be mystified. A lot of homelessness is dumping mentally ill people who’d’ve been hospitalized fifty years ago. Some ate hobos at heart. Some ate down on their luck, but the average length of time they spend homeldd used to be three months. Some ate addicts–drug and/or alcohol. One size fits all panaveas help almost none of them. The ones I despise are the spoiled kids on a vacation. A friend of mine wrote an article about “homeless’ kids in Manhattan, and a HUGE chunk of the ones you would see in the Village were those kids. Taking time off to see New York and panhandle…

  • Libby

    Slightly OT: I started volunteering at a local food bank through my church and it’s been amazing to see how such a small organization (only a few paid staff) manages to procure & process enough food to provide for over 7000 visitors a month (for free), whether they’re homeless or a family just short of funds at the end of the month, whether they’re local or drifting through town, whether they’re one time or repeat (monthly) visitors. Almost all labor is volunteers, and they’ve opened all sorts of pipelines for their supply (not just the churches that banded together to start it), including such surprising ones as the postal service for the free baby formula tins sent to new mothers that are undeliverable (about $75,000 worth per month from 6 states), or the unused toiletries from local hotels. No opportunity to divert usable goods that would have otherwise been tossed seems to be overlooked.
    Along with the free food they are focused on helping these people get back on their feet, such as nutrition tips and how to stretch out what food you can get your hands on. I see that San Francisco spends $165 million and I wonder: how much of that is actually spent on the recipients vs. overhead, and how much less could they spend if they were actually attempting to assist those that really do want to get out of it (instead of training/encouraging them to be recipients-for-life). And why does the government always have to step in instead of allowing the families and community organizations assist as they have done in the past? (OK, I know the answer to the last one: money and control).

  • Matt_SE

    Democrats aren’t the only ones with a failure of imagination. I’ve decried the same thing on our side, as the perennial cries of “entrepreneurship” and “rugged individualism” rise during campaign season.
    Many people, Republican, Independent and Democrat DON’T WANT TO OWN A BUSINESS. Sure, if someone gave them a million dollars they wouldn’t refuse it, but they have no desire to work harder to get ahead. They have no desire to forgo the rewards of the present for the greater rewards of the future.
    They have certain modest needs and as long as those are filled, they are fairly content.
    The key to reaching these people is to show them that the socialistic road we’re headed down will lead to ruin. Then, they won’t even have the basic needs filled.

  • Charles Martel

    Building on what Libby said: When you discuss San Francisco’s $165 million splurge on the homeless, it’s important to understand what’s really going on. The bulk of the money goes to support the parasitical overlay of bureaucrats and do-gooders who are officially tasked with “helping” the street people.
    An entire industry has grown up around the homeless. Like all organizations that depend on theft from taxpayers, the end game is not to move the homeless into the approximation of a middle-class lifestyle, it is to perpetuate the problem so that the would-be solvers always have a job. We’re talking classic make-work.

    • lee

      That’s right–I forgot about that. I recall reading someone who had worked with government program in SF to aid the homeless, and their disgust over the fact that the people there didn’t really want to “solve” any of the homelessness, they wanted mo’ money, mo’ money, mo’ money. Working with independent (particularly church affiliated) entities was anathema, mainly (and apparently this came up in meetings) the independent ones (particularly the church affiliated ones) had a tendency to actually HELP people get what they needed to get off the streets: treatment for mental illness or addiction, reunite with families, jobs, training, faith in themselves. The writer of this article was so deeply, deeply disgusted.
      Yet, they probably continue to vote Democrat…

    • Libby

      Exactly, Charles!
      In addition to the huge make-work bureaucracy, the delivery system makes a difference in how people respond to the handout. With the government, they issue an automatically replenished  SNAP debit-card that can be used at a variety of stores (Whole Foods, 7-11), so that the user can  behave as if they were using their own money. At a food bank, they have to interact with the people providing them the handout (out of their own time and/or expense), rub shoulders with others like them,  and they are limited to what food selection is currently available .
      There will always be some recipients who will fail to appreciate the free food, but for the rest: Which method reminds them that they are failing to provide for themselves? Which method engenders gratitude? Which method motivates them to change their situation? Which method is more susceptible to fraud?

      • Matt_SE

        This of course ties into the anti-shaming movement. The left wants to make it socially acceptable to wallow in one’s own mistakes…effectively turning it into a virtue!

  • Danny Lemieux

    Lee says, “So one “solution” gets implemented “for lack of a better word), and the profs are done. If, nine years down the road, it becomes apparent that their “solution” solved nothing, they won’t admit they were wrong–they’ll just be mystified. ”
    …and their solution will always be, more cowbell!

    • Ymarsakar

      By the time the con is over, the damage is already done.

  • lee

    True, true… Always ” more cowbell.”

  • Jose

    BW makes a good point that some homeless people are living exactly how they want to. An acquaintance noticed a fellow living under a bridge not long ago.  One day he picked up an extra meal at McDonalds and delivered it to the homeless fellow, who declined.  “Nah, I don’t eat that junk”.
    2nd thought: When I visited San Francisco 10 years ago I saw more panhandlers than I’ve seen anywhere in my life.  And they were all listening to MP3 players, which was a luxury I didn’t possess at that time.

  • Matt_SE

    Per Charles Martel’s comment: public choice theory.
    Bureaucrats aren’t primarily interested in satisfying voters, taxpayers or those they purport to serve. They are primarily interested in serving their own needs.

    In my mind, one of the most perverse things about this is the end-goals: bureaucrats can’t pay themselves off too overtly in money, so they seek strange institutional goals like getting more budget for their department especially relative to other departments. It ends up looking like a petty horse race for bragging rights.

    • Ymarsakar

      It’s why budgets cuts never stopped the Democrats. All it did was to make political connections worth more, as that would net more budget. Generally it ended up with politically weak departments, the ones that were doing the job and not playing politics, bereft of funding and all the funding went into the big orgs like the IRS. To the public, it looks like government “cut its spending”. Nothing like it ever happened.

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  • Ymarsakar

    It is not that the Left thinks they know what people want. It’s that the Left understands that what people want is meaningless in the face of what the Left will make the people need. Even if a person doesn’t want to be raped or addicted to drugs, the Left knows what NEEDs to be done.

  • bicentennialguy

    I lived in San Diego for several years.  There was a particular freeway exit where a panhandler would always be stationed.   A local news crew put an actor on a freeway exit nearby and they discovered that this planted panhandler was raking in upwards of $5000 per day.  Not bad work if you can get it.
    Also, when I moved to Cleveland, Ohio in 1999, there was a homeless couple who lived under the bridge right across from my apartment.  My roommate and I would encounter them occasionally and we became “friends” with them.  This entailed them coming over if we were sitting outside and just chit-chatting or if they needed a bottle of water, we would fill their jug up for them.  Anyway, long story short, the woman, “Lori,” stated that they loved living the way they did.  When winter came around, they would live with “Tony’s” dad, and then once the weather got better, they were back living under the underpass, wandering the streets, going to the local church for meals, etc.  They really didn’t bother anyone and they were very content in their lives.  They had no use for a full-time job, a mortgage or other responsibilities.