Accuracy in Media

John Oliver has had a go at the housing market in the United States – good! Reform there is both possible and desirable. But Oliver’s specific solution is incorrect. Not just a bad idea, but wrong.

Oliver argued that the U.S. must declare housing to be a human right — but declaring it so does not solve any of the varied problems.

Of course, the likes of Mashable are excited by that declaration: “We need to agree housing is a human right.”

“We need to agree housing is a human right,” Oliver said. “This can actually be policy. Many countries, including France, Scotland and South Africa, have legally codified a right to housing, and here in the U.S. three-quarters of Americans already believe that it is a human right.”

That’s not a solution. We can get theoretical and talk of Karl Popper and positive and negative rights if we like. All that’s necessary for you to have free speech is people to stop stopping you from having free speech – it’s a negative right. Housing (or health care, or food) are positive rights. Even if we insist that all should have access – and we should too – someone, somewhere, has to provide them.

In this sense, the big difference is that how much housing there is depends on how much has been built. Declaring that it’s a right does not change that. Whether we talk of government housing or private, or affordable, or zoning, multifamily or whatever, how much there is at what price depends upon how much of each has been built – not whether it’s a human right or not. The “right” to it changes nothing that is.

But that’s being all theoretic. We can also look at the specific examples Oliver uses. We’ll not worry about the French, but Scotland and England are very similar places. Housing is a human right in Scotland and it isn’t in England. The population of Scotland is about 10% of that of England. The number of homeless in Scotland is about  12% of that in England. This is not evidence that making housing a human right has improved matters (and do note that while definitions of homelessness can differ wildly, those two are from at least the same organization presumably using the same criteria each time).

The other example, South Africa, does not aid Oliver’s case.

“Accurate statistics on the number of homeless people in South Africa are non-existent. But in Cape Town alone, figures from 2020 suggest the metro has upwards of 14,000 people living on the streets. Johannesburg has around 15,000.”

Those are numbers that would make San Francisco itself blush with pride.

We’re perfectly willing to agree that theoretical arguments, like the type of rights, can be disproven by real-world evidence. What matters here though is that there is no such real-world evidence. Making housing a human right – and using the very examples that we are urged to look at  – doesn’t solve the problems of housing and or homelessness.

John Oliver’s show gains many millions of viewers. What might be called the repeat channel on YouTube has 8.5 million subscribers and has had more than 3 billion views.

With fame comes responsibility. Housing and homelessness are important problems that solutions can and should be found for. Being wrong both in theory and practice is not one of those good looks for the John Oliver show.

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