The Wall Street Journal has adapted Charles Kesler’s editorial in the forthcoming issue of the Claremont Review of Books — we’ll be getting to a few highlights ourselves next week — into the column “California’s biggest cities confront a ‘defecation crisis'” (subhead: “Lawmakers ban plastic straws as a far worse kind of waste covers the streets of San Francisco and L.A.”). Having turned one of the most beautiful cities in the United States into a scene of disgust and dissolution, the crisis gives visible form to the crisis of liberalism if not the suicide of the West. This is the conclusion of Charles’s editorial/column:
Confronted on the sidewalk with a nasty fait accompli, most people are indignant. But the questions they then ask often diverge. Those of a more traditional disposition might wonder, “What is wrong with these people?” Those of a more progressive mind-set might exclaim, “Why hasn’t the government designed a program to solve this?”
Each is sincere, and society will have to try to answer both to make things better. But it’s the former inquiry, prepared to make some difficult and unfashionable moral distinctions, that needs encouragement in deep-blue California. “Homeless” was originally an adjective. It became a collective noun, denoting the victims of homelessness, only later, under the influence of the 20th century’s confidence that the first step in solving a social problem is to name it. Not all problems are social, however, and few if any social problems can be “solved,” in the strong sense of the term.
Without wishing to return to the Elizabethan Poor Laws, we ought to consider what was lost when the courts discouraged Americans from thinking of “homelessness” in light of the old laws against vagrancy. Under that understanding, no one had a right to camp out indefinitely on public property, much less to defecate on it. Public property belonged to the public—to everyone—and couldn’t be privatized for the benefit of one or more vagrants, however poor or sick. Though that principle would need to be applied to modern circumstances, it is the indispensable starting point for thinking about the shocking problems of the Golden State.
This is something like political philosophy for dummies, a return to the basics of civic order that are so lost as to raise the question whether they are beyond recovery.