Free Markets, Free People
Some of you would no doubt love to be accosted by a bunch of girl scouts plying their wares (you know who you are), but you won’t be subject to such a harrowing experience in Seattle:
Tim Burgess’s move to outlaw “aggressive panhandling” may be an unconstitutional, attention-seeking bully tactic, but at least the Councilmember appears willing to apply the law equally to anyone asking for money on the streets. Even if they just want to sell you a box of thin mints.
The issue, such as it is, arose from a (possibly facetious) email exchange between a Seattle Councilmember and an alleged citizen complaining about what can only described as a channeling of a Mike Myers mock-horror scene:
I was strongly opposed to your panhandling proposal until my experience on the streets of downtown West Seattle yesterday. Now I totally understand where you’re coming from.
Here’s what happened: on the way to the West Seattle Farmer’s Market, I encountered a band of Girl Scouts aggressively promoting cookie sales within spitting distance of a KeyBank ATM where I was withdrawing money. The situation was so extreme that I could actually hear their aggressive, repeated, high-pitched solicitations at the very moment I was entering my PIN. Then as my cash was dispensed and I nervously removed my receipt — trying to stay calm despite this invasion of my constitutional right to not be confronted by my relative class status — I saw two adult women. They were the ringleaders, I assume. They didn’t seem to be doing anything but watching over the whole scene and talking discreetly to each other about god knows what. All in all, a nerve-racking experience.
So there they were, asking for money, repeatedly, despite my lack of interest in what was on offer, all happening well within 15 feet of an ATM. Would this be banned by the your ordinance? I certainly hope so, because there’s a long history of applying laws like this inequitably, almost as an excuse to push poor people out of desirable areas instead of addressing the actual problem.
Thanks for any information you can offer.
My best guess is that this email comes from a rather disgruntled, yet somewhat clever, panhandler. The Councilmember’s response is both appropriate and obviously skeptical, but it does raise an interesting question: if the state is going to exercise it’s police powers judiciously, doesn’t that ensure that we miss out on opportunities that are neither a threat nor an offer of something we don’t really want? After all, what sort of hair-shirted aesthete do you have to be to not want girl scout cookies?
When it comes to local rules and regulations, I’m not one to quibble too much unless such restrictions impinge on fundamental rights. Setting up shop in a public way certainly deserves some treatment of police power since the sidewalks belong to the public. At the same time, if you are just standing around hawking your legal goods, I really don’t understand what it is we need to be protected from. Can it be annoying to walk through a gauntlet of capitalism? Sure. Maybe worse for some than others. But we don’t have any right to be free from annoyance, do we?
I mean, if that were the case, then why should I be bothered by ACORN morons marching up and down the street where I work? Nothing has ever been done about that. Once, I nearly came to blows with some idiot preaching about how we needed a new New Deal while I was trying to enjoy a leisurely stroll in downtown Alexandria, VA. Do I have the right to be free from that annoyance? Not bloody likely.
And the fact of the matter is that I shouldn’t be “free” from those annoyances, anymore than I should expect to be “free” from girl scouts selling cookies on a street corner, or a hippie selling dew rags in a city square. If one of them genuinely threatens my peace, then the appropriate authorities should be able to step in, but how often is that truly the case? That some panhandler was able to point out this hypocrisy in the enforcement of Seattle’s anti-public-space-economy laws (to coin a terrible phrase) only underscores how ridiculous the application of police power (local or otherwise) has become.
The bottom line is that, whether one is selling girl scout cookies or dew rags, why do I need the state’s protection? Keep the public ways clear for the public sure, but let’s not forget that commerce is what truly makes the world go ’round. Without it, that police protection doesn’t get paid for.
[HT: Tom Scott]