Altruism and the Panhandling Society

Altruism and the Panhandling Society

By Robert Tracinski - March 30, 2013

Deep down, I knew how this story was going to end.

Back in November, the national news picked up a viral video of a New York City police officer buying a pair of boots for a homeless man in Times Square who was shoeless on a cold night.

Everyone else thought this was a heartwarming story of generosity. I thought: what a sucker.

Turns out I was right.

I used to live in Chicago, and sometimes in what they called "transitional neighborhoods," which is shorthand for sharing the streets with hookers when you walk the dog at night. So I know a thing or two about "the homeless," and I know that the exactly wrong reaction to a homeless guy is to think: he just needs a good pair of shoes.

Frankly, the part of this story that really shocked me was that an NYPD officer didn't know any better; it's the kind of job that will give you a gimlet-eyed view of humanity in short order. But then I saw that Officer DePrimo is 25, comes from the suburbs, and still lives with his parents. He'll learn, I thought.

And so he has.

The first glimmer of common-sense skepticism came when a New York Times reporter found the homeless man, Jeffrey Hillman, and guess what? He was barefoot again. It was a little unclear what had happened to the shoes, and the closest we got to a look at the background for the story was this exchange with the reporter. "He was reluctant to talk about how he ended up on the streets, staring blankly ahead when asked how his life went off course. After a long pause, he shook his head and said, 'I don't know.'"

The problem of homelessness is well known, and it is not primarily caused by poverty. Some of the homeless are alcoholics and drug addicts, and many are mentally ill, set adrift by reforms that made it harder for the state to involuntarily commit them to mental institutions. A few of the homeless, in my experience, are simply so averse to the responsibility of a job, a house, and paying the bills that they would rather live in squalor than plan more than a few hours ahead, and they find that big cities are wealthy enough that they can live on the crumbs. Any of these possibilities was a reasonable hypothesis in this case, and some may have been a legitimate cause for pity.

Then there's another category of the homeless: the professional con man. Guess which one Jeffrey Hillman turns out to be?

It took until this week for a team of New York Post reporters to do the obvious: follow Hillman home on the subway.

That's right. Home. As in where the "homeless" man lives.

"Jeffrey Hillman was spotted at 9:20 p.m. Sunday counting a huge wad of bills with the dexterity of a bank teller while riding a No. 2 train from Times Square to his home in The Bronx....

"Asked about his boots, he replied, 'I choose not to wear shoes'—even though a New Jersey clergyman who has been paying Hillman's utility bills said the man owns at least 30 pairs....

"On Sunday, Hillman started counting his haul shortly after hopping the subway train in Times Square and was still counting as it approached a stop at 152nd Street and Westchester Avenue not far from his apartment on Prospect Avenue in The Bronx.

"The cash appeared to be mostly singles—but still added up to several hundred dollars, judging from the size of the pile." 

None of this should be any surprise. It's one of the oldest cons in the book—so old that it figured prominently in a Sherlock Holmes mystery, "The Man with the Twisted Lip," written in 1891. I remember seeing a documentary a few years back in which the film crew surreptitiously followed one of its subjects until the point when the "homeless disabled veteran" stood up out of his wheelchair, folded it under his arm, and hopped the bus back to his house. So it's not like an experienced cop—or an experienced reporter—should have been surprised.

The Post reports that Officer DePrimo, who gave Hillman the boots, "could not be reached." Yeah, I bet he's really eager to talk about being the most gullible greenhorn on the force.

The Post then followed up with a good column from Michael Walsh describing this as a symptom of the whole system of big government. 

"Hillman's just a piker when it comes to the rising culture of sham dependency that is rapidly turning this country from a nation of self-reliant citizens to shuffling pseudo-mendicants and conniving criminals who have one hand extended to collect government largesse while the other is busily picking your pocket." 

One of the examples Walsh cites is Social Security disability, which has surged to become the nation's biggest welfare program, despite the fact that there is no evidence of any increase in actual physical disabilities. Out here in Central Virginia, seemingly the opposite of downtown Chicago, I once had a neighbor who boasted loudly about how he was going to get set up on the disability program. His disability is that he is a drunk. There you have one of the great innovations of the welfare state: the parasites don't need to flock to the big cities to feed off our crumbs.

But the system goes much deeper than this. It goes to the very question of why everyone bought the story in the first place. Why did no one—from the young greenhorn to the mainstream media reporters to the other New Yorkers who admitted to giving Hillman shoes in the past—why didn't they ask more questions sooner?

The reason is that this was never the point. They were not focused on the person to whom they were giving their largesse. They did not inquire seriously about the cause of his plight or the requirements of his wellbeing. He was simply there to be the object of their charity, to help them make a show—to others and to themselves—of being enlightened and compassionate.

This is the contradiction at the heart of the philosophy of altruism, a contradiction captured in a quote attributed to W.H. Auden (though he didn't originate it). He described "the conceit...of the social worker—'We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for, I don't know.'"

It's a joke, but one with a serious point, one Auden himself didn't fully grasp. As a moral philosophy, altruism means more than just kindness or benevolence. It is the doctrine that the moral purpose of life is to sacrifice oneself to serve others, that "we are here on this earth to help others." But by its nature, it asserts a purpose for human life that not all humans can fulfill. The "others" we are supposed to serve have, by this logic, no moral purpose. And so, in practice, they are treated as if they are not really human.

While the altruist pats himself on the back for his compassion, note that he does not grant the object of his pity the dignity of viewing him as a moral agent in his own right. If you or I were to end up destitute—and in this economy, who knows?—we could make some reasonable projection of what we might do. It is very unlikely that we would end up on the streets, at least not for long. You might rely on the generosity of friends and family; you're never too old to move back into mom's basement. You might scrabble for a job and for cheap housing. If you are very desperate, or not very scrupulous about this sort of thing, you might resort to the various forms of private and government assistance. You would exhaust a lot of options before you resigned yourself to a life on the streets.

But when respectable folk are walking across Times Square and see the "homeless guy" with no shoes, they don't think to ask: why isn't he doing any of these things? They just throw him a few bills. They have learned to regard him, not as a real person, but as a stock character, a passive object who exists solely for the ritual enactment of their own beneficence.

It is the only explanation I can think of for how you get seasoned city-dwellers who are actually surprised that one of these guys is running a con on them.

So, yes, Hillman was playing a part. If you will consult your playbill in the Kabuki theater of altruism, you will see his part listed as, "The Other We Are Here to Serve." It is supposed to be a walk-on gig, not a speaking role—and his misfortune is that a few intrepid reports called on him to speak and to become a real character.

Perhaps, along with Officer DePrimo, we can learn something from it. 

Robert Tracinski is editor of The Tracinski Letter and a contributor to RealClearMarkets.

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