Decades ago — nearly four of them, I think: around 1971 — I was reading an account of the problem of homelessness in Boston. It was a study done by clinical psychologists, and it contained one interesting factoid that remains in memory to this day. The investigators found that 95 percent of the street people they interviewed would have met all the criteria for admission into a mental asylum in the mid-1950s.

These asylums, among the first “welfare” activities the state took over, were emptied out, starting in the late 1950s and continuing through the 1960s. It is a well-known story, though perhaps never well enough told. The long and short of it is that mental asylums proved “economically unsustainable.” The aggregate population of the officially mad was larger than the population officially criminal, and the prisons had been expensive enough to maintain. By tradition, the prisoners could defray this cost by breaking rocks and sewing postal bags. But the mad were a pure liability.

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Count on bureaucracy to come up with a plan. Various purported “advances in medicine” allowed the authorities to create a new breed of “outpatients,” whom they imagined could live “functional, creative lives” with the help of recently invented pharmaceuticals. Propaganda was soon created against the asylums, playing upon the public’s dark fairytale sense of “medieval dungeons” — and on the flip side of this, a happy-face campaign about the wonderful lives the mad could now live thanks to “modern science.”

We will assume, for the sake of this argument, that the drugs were and remain absolutely infallible, had and have no side effects, were and are still dispensed conveniently, and for free.

I seem to remember the expression “off his meds” came into the language in the 1960s. The sort of bureaucrats who make these decisions — to empty mental asylums into the streets, and so forth — consistently assume that people behave rationally. This is the Homo economicus, the rational, self-interested player presented with ever more theoretical sophistication as the hero of all social science modeling — a kind of super-intelligent lab rat.

Why wouldn’t a rational person take his meds? Why wouldn’t he be sure to get his prescriptions filled, promptly on all occasions, especially when the state is prepared to pick up the bill? And when the known alternative to taking the meds is descent into a hell on earth?

The problem being that the mad lack, more or less by definition, a rational apprehension of self-interest. The more subtle problem being that no human being has such a thing, unless our definition of “reason” is expanded to embrace the whole impenetrable human soul, in which case the social sciences go out the window.

I’m an urban person myself, and a walker. Every day, I have the opportunity to look in the eyes of the victims of social-science modeling, who are often more than willing to help me “feel their pain.” We could argue whether the mad in our streets are 95 percent of the homeless, or maybe only 82; that they are the majority is self-evident. The homeless problem existed a generation before Reagan could be blamed for it; two generations before Bush “created” it; and perhaps three before Sarah Palin could take the credit from all liberal media. The homeless are used as a lobbying lever to crank up social spending on a great variety of liberal causes.

For the last couple of years, my life has also included frequent visits to a nursing home. Medical science has yet to deliver a pill that will suppress the symptoms of aging long enough to turn the old in these expensive institutions out into the street, to join the mad and the “elective indigent.” But we’re counting on bureaucracy to come up with a plan.

These places are staff-intensive. And did you know that the staff have rights? They get paid bourgeois salaries, are protected by labor law, and work (usually) 35 hour weeks. A week has 168 hours, so that means 4.8 of them for each bureaucratically defined staff function. The staff thus frequently outnumber the inmates. Which is, if I am not mistaken, how euthanasia got on the public agenda, and we have all this glowing propaganda for “death with dignity.”

The huge, carefully interred truth is that all such eleemosynary activities — not just homes for the old and the incurable and the mad, for orphans and the poor and for refugees, but every sort of school and university and hospital and mission known to the Western world and far beyond it — originated in provisions of the Catholic Church. Many were sustained or added to by Protestants after the Reformation; but till the day before yesterday in historical time, the state restricted itself to prisons. Because that is what the state could afford.

There are ways of defraying the cost of prisons, though not the cost of visiting the imprisoned, and caring for their deepest spiritual needs. Everything else requires love to sustain, and by extension, very large quantities of voluntary labor. None of these institutions makes the slightest economic sense, and none of them has ever been affordable by taxpayers.

The welfare state is at a dead end, and soon the Church must resume her labors.



  • David Warren

    David Warren is a Canadian journalist who writes mostly on international affairs. His Web site is

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