Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Bad or Ungood

I was reading a webblog posting entitled: "Exploitation and Social Justice." and I recalled the flap over "Bumvertising" a few years back. Here's the general gist behind the blowup - a young entrepreneur gave panhandlers some food, water and a small amount of money in return for holding a sign for in addition to their own signs.

Of course, advocates for the poor and homeless cried foul. But Bleeding Heart Libertarians poses an interesting question - given that both Ben Rogovy and the panhandler benefit, and the panhandler is getting something that he wouldn't have gotten otherwise, should the government have stepped in? The impulse to excoriate Rogovy is understandable - "a bit of food and water, plus $1 to $5" doesn't seem like very much - you normally couldn't hire someone to stand outside with a sandwich board all day for such a paltry amount. But if Rogovy's options were pay someone $7.35 an hour (Washington state's minimum wage at the time) or not do it at all, it's a pretty safe bet he simply would have passed. So the small "wage" that was offered becomes more than the panhandlers would have gotten otherwise, and Rogovy wasn't asking them to do much of anything that they weren't already doing.

The basic theme of "Exploitation and Social Justice" is that making things like Bumvertising illegal doesn't do anyone a service - it simply cuts off the potential benefits that people gain, even when the gains seem so small as to strike us as patently unfair. It's an interesting concept, and I can see both sides of it. While George Will has pointed out that we can, in fact, legislate morality (at least public morality), legislating some sorts of fairness seems substantially harder, because you can't normally force people into transactions. But it leaves one with a dilemma. Once we accept that anything is better than nothing, it appears to undermine the entire concept of fairness. But we have to accept that standard of fairness sometimes result in the people that we're attempting to help getting nothing at all. Which is the lesser evil? It sucks, always seeming to have to make choices between bad outcomes. Which is why I suppose that so many people tend to see their model of governance as an unalloyed good thing - and it would be wonderful if we didn't have to make a choice between poor people being exploited and poor people starving. But it's unlikely any political system will ever take the difficult choices away. So we're going to have to make our peace with them.

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