America’s homeless epidemic, along with a shocking rise in deaths from drug overdoses, stem from the same root cause: liberal progressive ideology. The seductive power of this ideology, which brims in equal measure with overwrought compassion for the less fortunate alongside fuming resentment towards the “privileged,” has earned it a dominant position in American culture.
Armed with the rhetorical equivalent of nuclear weaponry, but devoid of common sense or acceptance of hard truths, liberal progressive ideology defines the message and the agenda in public K-12 and higher education, entertainment, conventional media, social media, multinational corporations, powerful nonprofit organizations, and establishment politics. But the consequences of liberal progressive ideology are often nihilistic.
While countless critical issues are being ignored or made worse thanks to the influence of progressives, two of them, homelessness and drug related deaths, stand out. In these two cases, the failure of progressive policies are increasingly obvious, to the point where even liberals are beginning to demand a return to polices that worked in previous decades but were abandoned in recent years.
Progressive Policies Have Lost the War on Drugs
Two important recent articles explain not only how these two crises became so acute, but offer solutions. The first of these articles, published in American Greatness, was written by John Little, a prosecutor operating in a rural county in Ohio. Little has observed first hand the worsening opioid epidemic. He describes how the price of drugs has plummeted in recent years, claiming that just four years ago, eight-ounces of methamphetamine would cost between $300 and $350, but today the price for that quantity of meth is down to $60.
Little describes “industrially produced meth that makes it all the way to low-level distributors as ‘big as your thumb’ crystals, and uncut fentanyl so dangerous that cops don’t dare touch the drugs they confiscate.” He says these drugs, trafficked by cartels, “pour over the U.S. border with Mexico like a raging torrent.” The tragic results by now are known to all – over 72,000 deaths from drug overdoses in 2017, and in 2018, a slightly lower but still staggering 68,000 deaths. Many times that many lives have been ruined and families shattered by drug addiction.
Here’s where Little’s article becomes more than just a recitation of the problem. Much more, because the solution he proposes has been tried before, and it worked. He recalls the largely successful effort by law enforcement, backed up by politicians and the courts, to defeat the crack epidemic in the 1990s. It wasn’t by treating crack addiction as a disease, and throwing money at treatment centers, which, as he notes, in the best of cases only manage around a 15 percent rate of long-term recovery. Instead, Little explains how we threw the book at dealers and traffickers. He writes:
“We don’t have crack houses all over the place anymore because we took the people who ran the crack houses and we put them in prison for so long that not only would the crack crisis have passed before they got out of prison, but everyone else was forced to stand up and take note of their sentence. Economics is economics. If you are actually going to attempt to ban a substance that has high demand, you must make the risk/reward calculus obvious and simple. The risk of apprehension multiplied by the likely punishment must exceed in value by orders of magnitude the anticipated reward in light of the alternative opportunities. And in order to make that message heard by all, a multiplication factor must be applied.
Basically, the punishment for selling drugs needs to seem unfair, draconian, and very scary to those likely to deal drugs. It must be sufficient to cause them to forego easy money and choose a life either of legal hard work or, as is the sad reality of our nation, government-funded dependency. In the United States, we did that once, and we won the crack epidemic with a combination of punishment and economic opportunity.
In contrast, today federal lawmakers bicker over palace intrigue and leave the barn doors open while Mexico and China flood our streets with dirt-cheap poison. Ohio lawmakers seem intent on singing kumbaya in a drum circle, hoping it will all go away if we just love the addicts enough. It will not.”
This is the real reason there were successes in the war against drugs. Making the punishment disproportionate to the crime created a deterrent. For every individual dealer or trafficker who received a harsh prison sentence, dozens if not hundreds of potential dealers and traffickers decided to find an honest way to make a living, and hundreds if not thousands of vulnerable individuals did not succumb to drug addition.
Progressive Policies Have Created the Homeless Crisis
A similar story can be told with respect to the homeless crisis in America, and nobody has told it better than Steven Malanga in his riveting article “The Cost of Bad Intentions,” recently published in City Journal. Homelessness and drug addiction are related problems, but Malanga focuses on homelessness, identifying the same trend over the past 40-50 years. The problem got out of control, policymakers adapted, the problem got better, and now the problem is out of control again.
How homelessness was tackled in the 1990s is the same, conceptually, as how the crack epidemic was tackled. Malanga points to what he refers to as the seminal 1982 Atlantic article on the myriad factors contributing to urban breakdown, “Broken Windows,” by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, and characterizes it as one of the “turning points in the battle to conquer chaos.” He describes how by no longer ignoring petty crime, police and prosecutors found that minor offenders were often wanted for more serious crimes, and that only a small percentage of lawbreakers committed most of the crimes. Getting these repeat offenders behind bars, and persisting in this so-called “broken windows” policing, led to crime rates falling, starting in New York which pioneered this approach, and elsewhere as other cities followed suit.
Malanga spends most of the remainder of his lengthy article recounting the harrowing tale of how, in city after city, progressive elites, themselves largely unaffected by the crime afflicting low income communities, pressured police and prosecutors into abandoning broken windows tactics. Claiming that crime, homelessness and drug addiction is caused by economic injustice and racism, they pushed for a new, compassionate approach. The result has been disastrous.
From Seattle, to Portland, to San Francisco and Los Angeles, progressive politicians downgraded property crimes, stopped enforcing vagrancy laws, and ignored drug use. In the case of Seattle, which is typical, Malanga writes:
Seattle politicians have permitted encampments of vagrants to proliferate in parks, empty lots, and other open spaces. Enforcement against drug use, petty crime, and acts of disorder like public urination has declined, producing an urban landscape increasingly littered with trash, human feces, and drug paraphernalia—in one of America’s most prosperous cities.
To Seattle’s politicos, what’s needed to ease the problem is more money. Yet the city already spends hundreds of millions yearly on homelessness—just not enough of it on the kind of interventions that might help. Its council passed an employer tax in 2018 meant to raise some $120 million more per year for homeless services but had to rescind it when companies and residents revolted. At one community meeting, a resident castigated public officials for ignoring the truth. “This is a drug problem. I’ve only heard it be called a housing problem.” Even the homeless themselves admit that virtually all the city’s street people are drug users. Public policy is enabling a homeless drug culture.
Seattle police polled by a local TV station placed the blame clearly on a political culture that had told them to stop enforcing various quality-of-life laws, as an expression of the city’s compassion. “People come here because it’s Free-attle,” one cop said. “They believe if they come here they will get free food, free medical treatment, free mental health treatment, a free tent, free clothes, and will be free of prosecution for just about anything, and they are right.”
Both Malanga and Little criticize the anti-law-enforcement narrative promoted by progressives. Malanga exposes George Soros’s Open Society Policy Center and the American Civil Liberties Union as the primary funders of California’s Prop. 47, passed by voters in 2014, which downgraded “nonviolent” property crimes including shoplifting, grand theft, fraud, and forgery, “with the aim of ending ‘mass incarceration’ in the state. If a theft amounted to less than $950 in value, Proposition 47 held, it would henceforth become a mere misdemeanor.” The result is a surge in these crimes, which no longer carry penalties sufficient to serve as a deterrent.
There’s Money to be Made in Progressive Nihilism
The involvement of well heeled progressive funders such as Soros and the ACLU exemplify the odd coalition that constitutes progressives in 21st century America. On one hand, wealthy globalist billionaires, on the other, fanatical grassroots activists who are convinced their “compassionate” approach to policy is the only equitable answer for society. Corporations and nonprofits alike find expensive, taxpayer funded solutions to be remunerative, regardless of their effectiveness. Like so many taxpayer funded programs, for these players, failure is success, as they fire up their grassroots allies to demand more money. But the solution isn’t more money.
The solution to America’s grim, losing battle with the drug cartels, along with the solution to America’s homeless crisis, require a return to tough laws and tough enforcement. This is a proven strategy that back in the 1980s and 1990s won the war on crack and got the homeless off the streets.
It is tragic and undeniable that sometimes members of law enforcement make mistakes. Sometimes courts mishandle cases. Perfect justice is impossible. But the liberal progressive approach has not only failed to solve the problems of drug addiction and homelessness, it has made these problems worse. Returning to tougher laws and more aggressive law enforcement will indeed result at times in offenders receiving sentences disproportionate to the offense. But that will deter, and hence spare, far more potential offenders who will decide the risks outweigh the benefits.
This principle, that setting a harsh example against a few will spare the many, is arguably a collectivist notion. It is ironic that progressives, who hold the ideal of collectivism high among their guiding principles, would fight so hard against tough laws that protect society. They demand environmental edicts bordering on tyranny, but they’ll insist that addicts, thugs, and thieves may own the streets, and deny the crisis as rivers of industrial strength poison pour across our borders.
It is a puzzlement.
* * *
Edward Ring is a contributing editor and senior fellow with the California Policy Center, which he co-founded in 2013 and served as its first president. He is also a senior fellow with the Center for American Greatness, and a regular contributor to the California Globe. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, Forbes, and other media outlets.
To help support more content and policy analysis like this, please click here.