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By Theodore Dalrymple

The New Vichy Syndrome: Why European Intellectuals Surrender to Barbarism.

Eye on the News

Theodore Dalrymple
A Little Social Experiment
On a London street, “social” housing encourages antisocial egotism.
10 August 2006

Selected Responses:

Sent by John Bedell on 09-07-2006:

In my experience, poverty often goes along with a sense that life is overwhelming and out of control. The people I know who have slid into poverty expend all their energy on survival and on distracting themselves from their problems (often in ways that lead to yet further problems). They have no strength left for gardening. I am not sure what is the ratio of cause to effect here; I suspect that a sort of psychological weakness comes first, but then poverty is extremely stressful in itself. What is clear to me is that the difference between me and those who have slid down into squalor is psychological. I have energy that they lack. I have never heard any of the poor people I know express any sort of leftist political sentiment or blame their problems on the rich, except in a vague, griping way. A sense of entitlement, in my experience, is something rich people have much more of.

Complaints that the quarters of the poor are dirty and ill-kept are as old as civilization—have a look at Tacitus, for example—so public housing is obviously not the cause of this behavior. It springs from the same cause as much poverty, an inability to cope with the rigors of life.

An interesting experiment took place on the London street where I have an apartment. A few years ago, the borough council permitted a developer to build six apartment complexes across from my building, on the condition that he reserve three of them for “social”—what Americans would call public—housing.

The architecture of the buildings, while deeply undistinguished, is far from the worst of the genre and certainly does not suffer from the gigantism that was once the vogue. The street remains leafy, and edges on a fashionable area. A two-bedroom apartment in the private complexes now sells for $900,000. To all appearances, the apartments are identical in the private and public housing complexes.

In front of these apartments is a tiny garden, not more than 15 feet wide. As you walk along the street, you can tell from these gardens exactly at what point the private property ends and the “social” housing begins, in exactly the same way as, overflying the island of Hispaniola, you can tell where the Dominican Republic ends and Haiti begins.

The little gardens in front of the publicly owned apartments are overgrown and jungle-like; they look as if no one really cared for them since the construction of the housing. Litter and household detritus—from diapers to the packaging of fast-food meals—covers them, some of it festooned on the overgrown bushes. At a certain point, private property takes over. The little gardens are cared for and neat; not a single piece of litter clutters them. If one were to appear, a property owner would soon remove it. My apartment, I am glad to say, is opposite a privately owned building.

What accounts for this startling difference? Raw poverty cannot force someone—even someone almost certainly a single mother—to dispose of diapers in the front garden. After all, the council collects trash from the public and private sectors alike.

Could the tenants of the public housing feel hard done by? No doubt they could, given the human capacity for resentment, and perhaps they express it by little acts of nihilism, but surely it is the providers of the “social” housing—that is, the hard-working taxpayers of the borough—who have the right to feel hard done by. The rent that the public tenants pay would be derisory compared with the market rate, and furthermore many such tenants would be exempt from local taxes. Taxpayers are making an involuntary gift, extracted from them by legal force, year after year, and no doubt decade after decade, to people who probably despise them for it. Where, one might ask, is the justice in that?

What is clear from the distribution of litter in the street is that it is the private that is social, and the “social” that is not so much private as solipsistic, egotistical—and antisocial.

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