In Defense of BeggarsSubmitted by Ed Ucation on Sun, 08/10/2014 - 15:36
The other day, as I was driving, I noticed a lady holding up a sign at an intersection. Some places where I lived, you find someone like this at every intersection, especially down south where the weather is mild. I have even noticed a shift change, where one beggar will leave and another will take his or her place. They have their territories and time slots.
Many people love to rail against beggars, especially those on the right. While this is to be expected from conservatives, too often, libertarians get in on the action. John Stossel once did a whole segment attacking and criticizing beggars and other freeloaders.
But what's wrong with freeloading? From a libertarian perspective, no rights are being violated, and beggars are not initiating aggression. We are assuming, of course, that they are not trespassing on private property that does not allow panhandling. So, from a non-aggression principle, libertarians should have no problem with bums.
But let's dig deeper. Sure, a libertarian might object, beggars do not violate the NAP, but we can object on moral grounds. They are unproductive free-loaders that live off other people's productivity. Oh really?
Austrian economics teaches us that all values are subjective. Everyone has different preferences, and we cannot tell what would make another person better off by a method other than by observing their behavior. In a transaction between a beggar and an alms-giver, each participant is better off because of the transaction, or they would not do it. The beggar is better off, because he now has the money that he values more than the time and effort expended to obtain it (by standing there and by thanking the alms-giver). But the alms-giver is also better off. The alms-giver has satisfied a psychic need, has eliminated a certain sense of uneasiness. The alms-giver now feels better. But as Mises explained to us, all transactions are done to eliminate a feeling of psychic unease. You buy something because you want it, and the want is a feeling of psychic unease that yearns to be satisfied. Thus, giving money to a beggar has the same psychological effect as, say, earning a paycheck.
So here is the thing:
Who are you to judge that one non-violent, mutually beneficial transaction is better than another one?
But, you may say, the beggar is not doing anything productive, is not making the world a better place! But he is! He is making one person feel better, the person that gives him money. How else can you improve the world, than one interaction at a time?
Imagine someone that loves model trains and spends all their free time and money buying and collecting model trains. Someone that wants to save the rainforest may see this as a total and utter waste of time and resources. I mean, how is the train collector making the world a better place? He is just wasting his time on a dumb hobby that helps nobody. But, you may say, he is providing a demand that keeps model train companies in business, thereby contributing to the jobs of the people that make model trains. But what if those people could be doing something better, if demand for model trains didn't exist, like saving the rainforest? The point here is that we people have different preferences. How are we to decide that one is better than the other?
If economic transactions are all about improving the psychic well-being of the participants, who are we to judge that someone that gives money to save the rainforest FEELS MORE than someone that buys a model train, or someone that gives money to a beggar?
Judge not, lest ye be judged. Do you want someone judging YOUR preferences?
Of course, sometimes preferences will come into conflict, so we need rules in place to resolve this. We libertarians believe in the non-aggression principle. The non-aggression principle is the simplest rule set for a civil society. But it is also the least judgmental, the most tolerant rule. It is the rule that respects the widest range of preferences. Therefore, it is the rule that allows for the greatest increase in psychic well-being for people. It is the rule that allows for the widest variety of methods of improving the world.