Sep 082011

You know the game:  you drive up to a stoplight, a bum is waiting at the corner with a cardboard sign about how he will, “work for food…anything helps.”  You do your best to pretend that you are on the phone, or looking for your makeup, or doing sodoku, or solving a differential equations math problem, anything but make eye contact.  Inevitably, someone at the light will stick their arm out, thereby attracting the panhandler over to take the offered treat.  The scenario plays out dozens of times a day on that very street corner.  It’s been noticed and discussed at the highest levels of local government.

“The mayor wants a seven-day ban.  Several city council members support a six-day ban; others say it’s not needed.  And the public just wants the city to do something.”  That is the exact quote from the newspaper when discussing the panhandling at intersections.  Most of the articles about this issue involve the involvement of some government entity (city council, county boards, etc.) trying to find a way to deal with these guys bumming money from drivers.  Some locales are trying to outlaw it completely, or only allow it on certain days, or require the panhandler to wear an orange vest, or some other law to curtail the panhandling.

The answer is simple and obvious:  Don’t give them anything!  Don’t give them money; Don’t give them food; Don’t prepare little “care packages” with peanuts and soap and water.  The free market is the only guarantee that this panhandling behavior stops.  If some guy (who already has a propensity to not work) has to wait on a street corner all day long to get nothing in return, there is no doubt he (or she) will find their time more valuable spent elsewhere in the pursuit of goods and services.  Doing nothing, for nothing, is something a bum won’t tolerate.  But, when we support this behavior by giving money at the intersection, we are rewarding doing nothing, for something.

A basic truth to those who would panhandle at an intersection is that they will continue to be there doing nothing if they are getting something in return.  But they won’t do it for nothing in return.  It would be better to go do nothing at the Salvation Army and get something (a meal, a bed, others to talk to) than to “labor” on a street corner for no return at all.  Enter the free market solving a problem without regulations or new laws.

If we, as consumers, feel compelled to “give” something to these panhandlers it would behoove us to make a donation to the local soup kitchen, Salvation Army, Red Cross, a local church, or any other of a dozen charities that exist in every city.  But, when we “give” to the panhandler at the corner we are creating a market for more panhandling, we are consumers for the guy in an orange vest with a sign that he will work for food, but he won’t.  His market is that street corner, and as with a drug dealer’s territory, if he leaves his market another individual will step in to capitalize in the profits of that corner.  The beauty and elegance of the free market in it’s most basic form.  We, as consumers, created the market and now we complain that we can’t control ourselves; so we look to government to save us from ourselves…”And the public just wants the city to do something.”

The answer to panhandling is neither more government nor more regulations, it’s more free market common sense; and the discipline of the consumers to leave the window rolled up, keep working the differential equations, and not feel compelled to do good deeds on the corner that should be done elsewhere.

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