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The bitter cost of the American Dream

A homeless encampment in San Francisco. Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty

On a “raw” Washington DC evening in winter 2018, my Uber passed a beggar “in the sludge” outside, says Janan Ganesh in the Financial Times. My American companion wondered aloud, “in a sorrow-not-anger kind of way”, how someone could have made such self-defeating “choices”. This wasn’t malevolence. It was a very American kind of innocence. The country was founded on the idea “that one’s life is wholly self-authored”, and its citizens put “unthinking but deep trust” in the market as a meritocratic system. If you believe there is a solid link between effort and reward, “you must believe – you must – that rough sleepers have it coming”. Mental illness, birth into a hopeless family, or “mid-life tumbles down the potholes of circumstance” are no excuse.

The experience of Europe shows that even “cold self-interest” supports a welfare state: a small per-person increase in tax would mean you don’t have “to run a gauntlet of syringes” in big cities. But Americans resist “because they think it is wrong in principle”. Europe’s less acute homelessness isn’t because of kindness or socialist principles, but possibly because centuries of feudalism have left people with an underlying awareness of the “vagaries of birth”. For this reason, it’s often monarchies that pioneer social reform. By contrast, America’s unbridled meritocracy is “marrow-deep”.

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