On the first page of the preface of The Homeless, Christopher Jencks writes about the responses that many Americans had to the rise of homelessness in American cities in the 1970s. He writes, “The spread of homelessness disturbed affluent Americans for both personal and political reasons. At a personal level, the faces of the homeless often suggest depths of despair that we would rather not imagine, much less confront in the flesh. … At a political level, the spread of homelessness suggests that something has gone fundamentally wrong with America’s economic or social institutions.”
I think the two books which most accurately describe the way that I understand our political and social worlds are Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman and The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson. Kahneman suggests that our brains are far more susceptible to cognitive errors than we would like to believe. Much of our decision-making isn’t really so much decision-making as it is excuse making, finding ways to give us agency over decisions that were more or less automatic. Additionally, Kahneman shows that we very frequently, and very predictably, make certain cognitive errors that lead us to inaccurate conclusions about the world. Simler and Hansen show that we often deliberately mislead ourselves, choosing to intentionally buy into our minds’ cognitive errors. By deliberately lying to ourselves and choosing to view ourselves and our beliefs through a false objectivity, we can better lie to others, enhancing the way we signal to the world and making ourselves appear more authentic. [Note: some recent evidence has put some findings from Kahneman in doubt, but I think his general argument around cognitive errors still holds.]
Jencks published his book long before Thinking Fast and Slow and The Elephant in the Brain were published, but I think his observation hints at the findings that Kahneman, Simler, and Hanson would all write about in the coming decades. People wanted to hold onto beliefs they possibly knew or suspected to be false. They were disturbed by a reality that did not match the imagined reality in which they wanted to believe. They embraced cognitive errors and adopted beliefs and conclusions based on those cognitive errors. They deceived themselves about reality to better appear to believe the myths they embraced, and in the end they developed a political system where they could signal their virtue by strongly adhering to the initial cognitive errors that sparked the whole process.
Jencks’ quote shows why homelessness is such a tough issue for many of us to face. When we see large number of people failing and ending up homeless it suggests that there is something more than individual shortcomings at work. It suggests that somewhere within society and our social structures are points of failure. It suggests that our institutions, from which we may benefit as individuals, are not serving everyone. This goes against our beliefs which reinforce our self-interest, and is hard to accept. It is much easier to simply fall back on cognitive illusions and errors and to blame those who have failed. We truly believe that homelessness is the problem of individuals because we are deceiving ourselves, and because it serves our self-interest to do so. When we see homeless, we see a reality we want to ignore and pretend does not exist because we fear it and we fear that we may be responsible for it in some way. We fear that homelessness will necessitate a change in the social structures and institutions that have helped us get to where we are and that changes may make things harder for us or somehow diminishing our social status. This is why we are so disturbed by homeless, why we prefer not to think about it, and why we develop policies based on the assumption that people who end up homeless are deeply flawed individuals and are responsible for their own situation. It is also likely why we have not done enough to help the homeless, why it is becoming a bigger issue in American cities, and why we have been so bad at addressing the real causes of homelessness in America. There is definitely some truth to the argument that homelessness is the result of flawed individuals, which is why it is such a strong argument, but we should accept that there are some flawed causal thoughts at play and that it is often in our self-interest to dismiss the homeless as individual failures.