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Restoring a city's "soul" through redistribution of wealth

December 2, 2004

One of the biggest obstacles free market supporters face is the unwillingness of many people to accept the reciprocity of individual rights—that is, your rights can meaningfully exist only if you recognize that everyone else has the same rights. Reciprocity is a hard sell because people tend to believe that other people’s subjective preferences are “wrong”, while their own subjective preferences are absolute truyh. In the economic sphere, this means that when a person decides something should be a priority, then everyone should support it, even if it requires the coercive apparatus of the state.

Here in Washington, D.C., the anti-reciprocity brigade has been on high alert for weeks over the city government’s crusade to finance a new baseball stadium for the former Montreal Expos (since rechristened the “Washington Nationals.”) The sportswriting staffs at Washington’s two major daily newspapers, the Post and the Times, have waged an unprecedented smear campaign to silence opponents of the stadium bill now before the city council. The most recent smear attack came from a columnist at the Washington Times—I am choosing not to name him or link to his column—who on Wednesday insisted that only “idiots” would reject a government-subsidized ballpark, and that those who presented factual arguments in support of their opposition should not be taken seriously:

Washington has a strange identity crisis. It is the most important city in the world, yet it is trying to establish itself as something more than just a federal city. A major league baseball team is a primary characteristic of that these days. The pencil-neck geeks who write economic reports and participate in panel discussions, such as the one held Monday by the CATO Institute, have no clue about that identity or the economic benefits — or much else for that matter.
Brad Humphreys, associate professor of recreation, sport and tourism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (often referred to as the Harvard of Urbana-Champaign), made this declaration at the CATO discussion when talking about how ballparks do not deliver economic benefits. "What about the [Tampa Bay] Devil Rays?" Humphreys said. "There's not a thing within 10 miles of that stadium." That's not true. There are a number of funeral homes within that 10-mile radius. Of all the possible examples, this clown picks the worst ballpark in baseball — a domed stadium that was outdated before the team played a game there, in a community with so many senior citizens on fixed incomes that it is the only place they take attendance before and after games. RFK Stadium would be a better draw than Tropicana Field. (Emphasis mine.)

Professor Humphreys (along with University of Maryland-Baltimore County professor Dennis Coates) released a substantive 12-page criticism of the D.C. Ballpark plan in October. The Times columnist does not provide a single piece of evidence to disprove the two professors’ arguments. Indeed, the columnist’s dismissal of Humprey’s Tampa example ignores the context provided in the paper: That “[t]he presence of pro sports teams in [] 37 metropolitan areas . . . has no measurable positive impact on the overall growth rate of real per capita income in those areas.”

When economics fails him, the Times columnist resorts to metaphysics:

Generations of politicians and business and community leaders have spent millions of dollar and countless hours trying to bring major league baseball back to Washington. After all of those failed efforts, anyone who claims to be shocked at the price tag for realizing that goal is either too stupid or too dishonest to hold public office — even in Washington. This city has had a hole in its soul for 33 years. If you think that is not the case, consider that no other city has waged such a long battle to try to get back a professional sports team.

This is yet another variant of the “public interest” argument that every demand for state intervention relies upon. It is the most basic rejection of individual rights possible; I want something, so everyone else should want it, and therefore the “public” needs to give it to me. When the columnist says “generations of politicians . . . have spent millions of dollars,” he is deliberately misrepresenting the situation. Politicians have confiscated wealth from individuals, via taxation, and used the funds to curry favor with baseball owners.

It is not an exercise in soul-building, but wealth redistribution. Indeed, the Humphreys-Coates report shows how government ballparks redistribute wealth rather than create it. When stadium proponents say a ballpark will generate x amount of dollars, they’re not distinguishing between new spending and spending that would otherwise occur elsewhere in the city. In other words, as Humpreys and Coates say, if a consumer who currently comes into Washington once a month to attend the symphony decides to go to the ballpark instead, that is a substitution, not a net gain of revenue for the city. But when you’re talking about a city’s “soul,” I suppose any discussion of economics is meaningless. I’m just another “pencil-neck geek” who doesn’t get it.

The larger point in all this, of course, is that while government stadiums often accompany “economic development,” such development is always the product of central planning. The local government spends years preventing the private creation of wealth through taxes, regulation, and zoning. Then one day, the government looks around and sees a lack of growth, which prompts them to finally allow development, provided the city is in charge and can reward businesses that curry favor with the political establishment.

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