So it’s good to ban charity? Really?

Do you ever spend your evenings aimlessly browsing the internet, clicking on whatever links happen to catch your interest? Sometimes it’s a video of a man, in his finest sweatpants and a t-shirt thats sleeves have been cut off to reveal his tree trunk-like arms, swinging a sledge hammer at a bowling ball. Other times, you find yourself stumbling upon an article describing particular city government officials attempting to strictly regulate, or even end, some of the most genuinely helpful forms of charity. Tonight, I found both.

Members of the City Council of St. Petersburg, Florida are considering placing a ban on feeding homeless people in city parks. This ban is being championed by Karl Nurse, a councilman who apparently believes the city will benefit by punishing the most generous citizens of St. Petersburg, who dare to take pity on those in need. The proposed plan would make it illegal for any individual or group to feed over 25 people at a time, unless that person or group had first obtained a permit. Even if one did, indeed, meet the set requirements and pay any associated fees necessary for the wise local officials to grant a feeding permit, the permit would only allow feeding to occur twice a year and in specifically designated locations.

Permits and licensure laws always, by their very nature, restrict freedom, increase costs, erect social and economic barriers, and diminish the standard of living of everyone unfortunate enough to fall under their reach. Certainly, the effects of establishing a permit requirement for feeding the homeless may not be as far reaching as medical licensure, for example, but this doesn’t excuse the immorality of such a law.

A very simple, but universally accepted, definition of crime is harm. If there is no harm, there is no crime. If an individual freely chooses to load up their car with boxes of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, that they made in their kitchen, and then drive down to the local park and peacefully distribute those goods, free of charge, what is the harm? If some less affluent individual sees that a free meal is being given and takes it upon his or herself to peacefully accept this nutritious gift, what is the harm? I would say there is none. As such, there is no crime.

So why take legislative action to restrict such generosity? One could argue that regulation is necessary to ensure the safety and nutritional quality of the goods being provided, but is that really a legitimate defense of such a policy? How many of you, if homeless, would choose starvation when faced with the choice of going hungry, or taking your chances with the local church group that “set up shop” next to a park bench? If hunger is, in fact, the preferred option then it is likely you either are not actually in too bad of shape financially or dietetically, or your survival instincts are rather weak. Regardless of your reasoning, it should be up to you if you accept the meal or continue on your way. Maybe you know of a local soup kitchen that has a strong reputation for providing safe, delicious cooking. But the consequences of your decisions are for you alone to bear.

By requiring a permit to feed the needy, the city of St. Petersburg is directly discouraging and penalizing the spirit of generosity that government, elsewhere, has been attempting to force out of humanity entirely. This is of course done for the purpose of conditioning human beings to the belief that without government, there is no charity and that free markets, made up of free individuals, will not give their time or energy to help the less fortunate. What is so terribly sad, is that this tactic has actually seen success. The truth, of course, is not that free individuals do not wish to act charitably, but that we enjoy little freedom to do so. Mandating that a permit be acquired to donate food makes this benevolent act more expensive, and by doing so reduces the frequency or magnitude that such donations will occur.

This is not to say that if some well-intentioned individual were to pull up in their truck and start giving out food, on private property, that the owner of the property wouldn’t be well within their rights to tell them to relocate. Property rights should always be respected. And if the goal is to encourage the homeless of the city to gather in “more convenient” locations, then perhaps the city should consider relaxing other regulations that prevent kind-spirited folk from opening well maintained soup kitchens or living centers established for the single purpose of helping the homeless get back on their feet and on their way to self efficiency. Operations like the latter have seen great success in many cities throughout the United States. Unfortunately, it is harder and harder to find politicians, at any level, that truly believe solutions can be found without increasing the strength of government.

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