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Public marathons for charity: A dissenting view

By Scott Shore
web posted September 15, 2003

At the risk of being labeled a complete humbug, I must take exception to the relatively recent phenomena of closing off public streets to raise money for various charities. Certainly giving charity to worthwhile causes is highly laudable and should be encouraged instead of coerced giving by means of government taxation. Charity allows one to exercise his or her moral choice and thus strengthen the innate human compassion and mercy toward others. Government "welfare" has quite the opposite effect. Politicians determine to whom dollars will be given largely based upon the political clout of the recipients. The tax "giver" is not voluntarily helping his fellow and the tax "receiver" has not received money or services based upon the kindness of his fellow citizens but rather through the indirect pick-pocketing of taxation. There is a natural resentment by hard working taxpayers and a false sense of "entitlement" by tax consumers.

On various occasions my hometown of Providence, Rhode Island decides to close down huge areas of the downtown and adjoining areas for various charities. The city (in other words, the politicians) decide that some particular cause is worthy (or politically attractive) and therefore consider it an entirely natural act to block access to public streets and employ the entire police force to permit joggers or walkers exclusive use of these roads. Besides creating massive aggravation amongst innocent drivers trying merely to get from one block to another only to find that they must go miles out of their way and navigate for an extra thirty minutes, the entire premise that this is a "public" event is wrong. Individuals have their own sense of values and priorities in how they wish to spend their own income. Some may want to support their children's school, others may want to help advance their religious institutions, still others may want to give to a cause or fighting a disease of particular concern to them. If the United Way were to sponsor a marathon, I would consider that half the running was to pay for bureaucrats at United Way and the remainder would be going to a series of organizations that may or may not be consistent with my values.

It seems always to be popular to have a marathon for AIDS. I have no particular problem with that. On the other hand, I might be more concerned about mental health, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, learning disabilities or cancer. Who determines which cause gets the public permits to the exclusive use of public streets and the protection of the police force? Usually it is the political disease du jour. Sometimes the politicians can sniff out some other crusade like food and shelter for the homeless to which they believe no decent human being could find objection. (Indeed most do not, but may find other ways of helping such unfortunates.) The particular charitable cause is not the issue. The issue is that the State (or city) has decided once again -- over and above taxation -- to rob me of my choice, my income and my access to public property.

One may suggest that if I can find an objection to well-intentioned joggers trying to do good on the streets, what could I justify as an intrusion into my income, my choice and my property. The answer is hardly anything and that's exactly the same sentiment as the Founding Fathers and the Constitution. Nowhere is the current scam to fleece taxpayers out of billions of dollars for a Medicare prescription bill imagined as a legitimate role of government. The only possible justification for the myriad of social welfare programs those American taxpayers support can be found in a sort of realpolitik. One can reasonably argue that the total absence of any social "safety net" might cause popular violence and social upheaval leading to an even more intrusive state. This argument should only be used in the most extreme circumstances and not in the sweeping sense that some neoconservatives and those on the left currently justify government redistribution programs.

Government is a necessary evil. As such, it should receive only as much as is required to carry out the only legitimate role of the State -- the protection of life, liberty and property. That is the end of the story. Full stop! In this sense we need a system of laws, courts and enforcement mechanisms; protection from personal harm or harm to one's property; protection against fraud and protection against foreign aggression. I must insert here that some conservatives (those who take some sort of pride in the prefix "paleo") and leftists are out of touch with the need to protect against foreign aggression in a time in which the nature of warfare and defense of the homeland has changed. In an age of terrorism, preemption is legitimate defense. When modern technology has miniaturized the means of delivering weapons of mass destruction and modern travel and an open society has made our country's borders permeable, the means of legitimate national defense changes. The Patriot Act at home and the disestablishment of terrorists abroad and the establishment of peaceful nations in their place is both noble and wholly justifiable. I am not willing to wait for the self-righteous purists to be given the benefit of the doubt when American cities and infrastructure could be destroyed by a variety of portable lethal devices.

Everything beyond that can only be justified on the "slippery slope" argument of maintaining social order. (One must always remember that the political class always has an interest in the expansion of coercive power and the natural tendency of government is to create "demands" that must be met in order to maintain a sense of "social equity." A politician without booty to dispense has no means to expand his or her interest.) In order to finance the most legitimate forms of government, some form of coercive legalized theft must be devised. One can only hope for the least inequitable and obnoxious form of theft.

The general idea of a truly free society is that a spontaneous order will develop when individuals and households are allowed to provide value and keep the fruits of their efforts to spend or invest as they wish. This is, in fact, the gist of the American Dream that has sparked a revolution throughout the world. You might wonder how I start off with a gripe about tangled traffic in Providence, Rhode Island. I think I picked on this subject because even conservatives often look at these events as neutral or benevolent. In fact, these various public intrusions by charities are a diminution of freedom and one that seems to be growing.

There is a legitimate way for those who wish to advance charitable causes to do so without using tax supported police power and monopolizing public streets. Such events could be held on private property or along paths in parks in which both joggers and walkers for causes as well as those who wish to stroll or jog for personal pleasure can share the path. If such an event requires public security, the sponsors of the event should pay for private enforcement agencies or "rent" the police force at a fair market price. If this is not feasible perhaps they should look for other ways to raise money. The fact is that no matter how worthy the cause, I feel fully justified in being indignant when it comes out of my hide or inconveniences me. Call me a curmudgeon or selfish if you like, but I prefer to believe that I know when my liberties are being diminished.

(c) 2003 Scott Shore.

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