Political Theory for the Homeless
Homelessness policymakers don’t often consult political theorists, which is understandable. John Locke’s corpus seems a world removed from the street crisis now afflicting cities like San Francisco. The need for solutions is urgent. In some contexts, it is healthy for intellectuals to debate the philosophical foundations of liberalism, and whether moral truth is subjective. Still, these weighty questions may not seem particularly germane to the question of homelessness.
But theory, properly understood, grounds us. It clarifies the stakes of any policy debate by examining the principles behind it, such as freedom, equality, justice, and compassion. What happens when our principles clash? The most compassionate response to homelessness might not be the one that’s most respectful of freedom. Politicians flatter us that our prejudices are true and say we can have it all; political theorists question the philosophical basis of our norms and show how and why they’re often irreconcilable. Social science can evaluate the effectiveness of certain policies—“what works”—but it’s theory’s job to determine what standards for evaluation we should use. The same program may be highly successful at housing formerly homeless people but unsuccessful at making them sober and employable.
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Stephen Eide is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor of City Journal.
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