What’s Wrong with Homeowning?

Michael Blim

“The first man who, having fenced off a plot of land, thought of saying “this is mine” and found people simple enough to believe him was the real founder of civil society. How many crimes, wars, murders, how many miseries and horrors might the human race have been spared by the one who, upon pulling up the stakes or filling in the ditch, had shouted to his fellow men, “Beware of listening to this imposter; you are lost, if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to all and that the earth belongs to no one.”
–Jean-Jacques Rousseau
“Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men”

Two weeks ago (see “Stop the Home Wrecking and Protect America’s Future, 3qd, 11/3/08), I argued that homeowners in trouble should be helped, and that helping them should necessarily trigger a discussion of whether it is wise and just to make homeowning a universal condition in America.

I think we should do both. Most people agree that homeowners in trouble should be helped, though many often carp about how undeserving homeowners will get over on any national solution that helps all. And providing housing has been national policy since the New Deal. The Federal Housing Act of 1934 sought to encourage improvement in housing standards and conditions” as well as “to provide a system of mutual mortgage insurance.” Successive acts of Congress in 1937, 1949, 1968, 1986, and 2008 affirmed and extended the national commitment to what the 1949 act called the national goal of “decent, safe, and sanitary” housing for all.

My column received several thoughtful responses. One I found especially challenging. The writer argued that favoring homeowners discriminated against renters, and that helping people own homes was encouraging the growth of a conservative class of property-rights protectors. To move forward, the writer argued, we need to be free from property, not encumbered and conditioned by it.

As the wonderful quotation from Rousseau suggests, my 3QD respondent’s beliefs find good company in a long political and philosophical tradition fearful of the reactionary effects on the human condition of property-owning. Suffice it to recall that Thomas More in Utopia abolished private property altogether. And though Rousseau’s position on property was in fact contradictory, his attack found voice among anarchists, socialist, and communists – in short, every major radical political movement of the 19th Century. Both the Russian and Chinese revolutions sought immediately to confiscate and collectivize private property at no little cost to its owners, and with few concessions to the masses that might have harbored a bit of desire for a touch of property too.

Today, not only some people on the left still feel that property-owning, in this case homeowning, nourishes the seeds of reaction in the bosom of the body politic, but others, notably on the right politically, resent policies that facilitate homeowning. “Political extortion” by left-wing organizations such as ACORN using the Community Reinvestment Act as their club, Villain Phil in a National Review editorial (September 22, 2008) argues, “’trumped businesses’ normal bottom-line concerns.” People, according to Villain, got mortgages without the requisite income, assets, or credit, and he attributes a reverse racisim, what he sees as the bending of the housing market by the Clinton administration to serve low-income, predominately minority residents of big cities, for the sub-crime crisis.

I would submit that both sides have it wrong.

Both sides need to acknowledge that not only is providing housing a 75-year old national priority, but the policy has supported the acquisition of housing by 70% of all American households. Homeowning is normative. I think it is also very reasonable to assume that homeowning is key to the American outline of the good life. Having a home too helps people support a stable household life and keep their housing costs down, or at least more stable, instead of finding themselves exposed to the much less controllable rental market.

My challenge to both sides then is: who are you to tell a grand majority of Americans whether they should or should not own homes? Do either of you really want to redefine the American Dream to suit your political ends, the latter putatively made to serve the people, without regard to the life choices they have made?

Those on the right might reflect on the fact that conservatives since the Reagan-Thatcher period have championed homeowning as the lynch pin of the ownership society. Even the present President Bush once envisioned it as the cornerstone to his attempts to return to a society in effect without government — a society in which everyone might be property-owners, and thereby solid conservative citizens. Where are these voices from the right now? Why is the Bush administration helping banks instead of homeowners, those new members of the “ownership society?” Explain to me why putting families in homes is not the most important thing a conservative administration can do, given its conservative healing powers.

Those on the left might reflect on their (and our) past. Does revolutionary socialism require that the people be dispossessed of all of their property down to and including their houses for the greater good? Or would justice be better served by extending homeowning to the remaining 30% without homes?

The 20th Century’s two greatest revolutions in terms of size and scope, the Russian and Chinese, committed unspeakable crimes as they confiscated the private property of the masses and created a state in which the people became abject subjects of a tyranny that still visits people’s memories and their children’s dreams. (See my column, My Summer with Stalin, for reflections on this topic). A patch of land, a small flat — these bits of life and their homely but personal accoutrements provide us with shelter for our spirits, some respite from the impressments of authority.

I would suggest to those taken with the revival of anarchist sentiments that while “property is theft,” homeowning provides some precious autonomy from the state. As derivative as the maxim “a man’s home is his castle” is of a certain possessive individualism, it is also the foundation in the Anglo-American world for the right to be left alone, as Justice Douglas put it. How does therefore homeowning not rise above class resentment and serve the greater end of a more just society?

If one must judge in theory, rather than relative to people’s preferences in a relatively democratic society, I would argue Rousseau had it wrong, and his cross-channel colleague Locke had it right. In fact, it was Locke who figured out something important about the relation of property to revolution. The totally dispossessed often lack the resources to mount a revolution, and even if successful are brought up shortly under one tyranny or another. Little property-holders, peasant with their plots, artisans with their workshops, workers with their modest bungalows, are often the one more capable of bringing on salubrious social change of greater as well as lesser intensities.

It is crucial that we re-point our politics toward homeownership — its protection in this perilous moment and its spread to all. This is the goose and gander of the thing for people on both sides of the question.

This is a ruinous time for many, and can get much worse.

If Lincoln is quoted in times of national division, Roosevelt is just the tonic for times of national peril:

“It is not in despair that I paint you that picture. I paint it for you in hope—because the Nation, seeing and understanding the injustice in it, proposes to paint it out. We are determined to make every American citizen the subject of his country’s interest and concern; and we will never regard any faithful law-abiding group within our borders as superfluous. The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

–Franklin Roosevelt
Second Inaugural Speech