What makes a right a right? Universal secondary schooling, for example, was a controversial proposal, vociferously debated in its day. Prior to its introduction, children were expected to work – and opponents of the changes were insistent that altering this would be to bend the wills of fate: the market would no longer truly be free – and in any case, children were just responding to the laws of supply and demand. They wouldn’t be working unless they wanted the money. Sound familiar?
Just think for a moment what the state of play might be if Britain was a place with free state housing for all. Like a free education, it would be based on the idea that every child in Britain has a right to prosper, or even to just get by. People have the right to sleep at night, free from the fear or actuality of cold, abuse, or prostitution.
Of course, like those lords opposing universal education in the 1870s, people may scream murder about the free market. But this ignores how, over time, most sensible people have come to accept that the extents of a free market should be constrained to prohibit things we consider grossly inhumane – like slavery – or where we see such constraints to be financially beneficial. We believe in a minimum wage; we put limits on immigration so that the financial prosperity of our country falls mainly on those British-born; and we believe in limiting individuals from having monopolies over the market, at least in theory. So our concept of how free the market should be, like how many rights humans should have, are based on the changing moods and sympathies of the people, rather than on a set of static, immutable truths.
Housing inequality in Britain today strips people of their humanity. Walking under archways, it’s hard not to notice homeless people shivering in sleeping bags, trying to remain inanimate, like the other non-human forms on the street that for some reason seem to attract far less abuse and outright disdain. The MPs elected to protect them push past without a second for compassion, righteously asking over Twitter why people can’t take their suffering elsewhere.
Less visible forms of homelessness can also be life-limiting. Hostel living can feel like a life as a character in a play, moving from one claustrophobic, impersonal set to another. In council housing, you might end up with a person you don’t know rewriting the script, too. That person can ship you out of your local area at a moments’ notice, uproot your children from their schools, take you away from your job – and from your friends, family and local connections.
But people will always offer reasons why free housing wouldn’t be a good idea. As British people, we have a distinct and marked dislike of giving things away for nothing. Don’t we? Between 2007-2011, the government spent approximately £1.162tn bailing out UK banks. In 2016, the government forecast that £1.4bn was needed to build 40,000 new homes. In other words, the sums hastily agreed to put right the wrongs of our financial industry could have built 33.2m houses – enough for just about everybody in the country. Why do we support the state giving out huge amounts to the super rich and irresponsible, but so ardently object to the idea of it being spent on us, the people?