All Commentary
Thursday, October 1, 1992

Two Kinds of Slums

Some Venezuelan families live in terrible slums, but without government subsidies, they have incentives to get out.

Gary North is president of the Institute for Christian Economics.

Back in 1980 I was invited to lecture to a group of people on a cruise ship tour of the Caribbean. I got a free trip on The Love Bloat. Food, food, food!

I even got food for thought. Part of the trip involved a brief visit to Caracas, Venezuela. The ship had docked about an hour north of the city, and tour buses carried us to the capital.

On the outskirts of Caracas, along the side of a hill, there was a slum like no other I had ever seen before, or have ever seen since. As we sped past, we could see it in the distance, but a pair of binoculars brought it much closer. It was nothing but a mass of corrugated steel shacks crammed together.

Later, I read about these mountainside “towns.” They have no plumbing. They are crowded with people who somehow get rides into the teeming and booming city miles away and far below. Serious diseases frequently spread through these little communities. I cannot imagine having to live in such conditions.

Someone on the bus said to no one in particular, “How incredibly ugly!” I thought about that statement for the rest of the drive into the city. I have thought about it from time to time ever since. Yes, that conglomeration of shacks was ugly. Aesthetically, it was an affront to our sensibilities.

Yet such ugliness is cause for rejoicing. It is the mark of freedom. When such ugly slums spring up, without any master plan, and without any government money, we know that free men are doing their best to find a better place to live, a better way to live. Most of all, we can be sure that they are making plans to get out.


Freedom Has Its Ugly Side

The well fed visitor from the United States thinks to himself, “What a terrible place to live.” He can see how bad it is. He shudders at what he sees. But what about the places he cannot see? What about “the places back home” that every slum-dweller left, shaking the dust off his or her feet? The rustic, dirt-floor huts in some isolated village where there is no promise of a better life and no memory of one, either. The charming village graveyards that have so many graves for children under the age of five. The lovely streams in which there are insufficient fish to feed a growing population. The village square in which there are no newspapers reporting on urban blight because there is neither literacy nor electricity to print a newspaper.

People leave these quaint, rustic settings with all of their picture-postcard beauty, and they head for the city. They have been doing this in the West since about the 11th century. This flood of immigrants has increased exponentially since the late 18th century. They come without capital, urban skills, or education. They could go home, but few do. They prefer to live in corrugated steel shacks on the sides of mountains. Why?

To them, the ugliness of the slum is the beauty of freedom. The slum is suffused with hope. It is a place of temporary refuge. A better world lies ahead, down that mountain. Residents of a mountainside slum can see a better world, literally. And seeing it, they can begin to make plans for getting off the mountain forever.

The mountainside slum will remain, but most of its present residents will eventually move out. There are two ways to move out: forward or backward. They can move closer to the city or back to the village. Their continuing presence in the slum announces to the world: better to stay in a slum with their dreams than to return to a village defeated. Because freedom’s slum offers people real hope of moving forward, they do not move back.

Housing in a slum is all that these newcomers can afford. The government could of course send the army up every mountainside to run the slum-dwellers out. The troops could destroy every shack. In America, this is called “urban renewal.” In a place like Venezuela, it might be called “ecological renewal.” The result is the same: homelessness. For the residents of the slums, slum-clearance could be called “hope removal.”


Housing Without Hope

The government could build public housing for a few people. Not for everyone, but a few. We have seen the fate of such housing projects in the richest nation in history, the United States. Can most of us imagine living in the South Bronx in a housing project?

Housing without hope: this is the ultimate slum. It may (for a time) be fleshly painted. It may (for a time) be clean. It may (for a time) be safe. But if it offers no way to get out, or worse, if it offers a government check to stay put, it offers no hope. And then the paint peels, the filth builds up, and the muggers arrive like locusts.

In New York City, you can see from the turnpikes the empty, burned-out housing projects as you drive by at high speed. (Careful: the next pothole may snap an axle.) Are those slums any less ugly than the mountainside slums of nations too poor to build public housing? More to the point, are they as useful for providing shelter to poor people?

In Venezuela, slum-dwelling families live in terrible conditions. But no one forces them to live there. No government subsidizes them to live there. They do not intend to live there forever. They make plans to get out; they test plans to get out; and eventually, most of them get out.

There are two kinds of slums. I don’t want to live in either kind. But this I know: one kind is worse than another. The one to avoid is the one with the invisible sign over its entrance: “All hope abandon, ye who enter here.”

  • Dr. North is president of The Institute for Christian Economics in Tyler, Texas. He was FEE’s director of seminars in the early 1970s and has served as a member of the board of trustees.