Panhandling law makes sense
Wednesday, June 9, 2010
By Beth Cody, Writer's Group member
Iowa City Press-Citizen

There has been a great deal of attention paid recently to the Iowa City Council's passing of a tougher ordinance restricting panhandling in the downtown Pedestrian Mall.

Opponents of the stricter ordinance make some good points: the law restricts freedom of speech, that it is unfair to pick on the poor, that there are already laws restricting panhandling in the Ped Mall, that very few incidents of aggressive or violent panhandling have been cited, and that it may affect street musicians who are an asset to our downtown.

Proponents of the new ordinance point out that residents enjoy the Ped Mall less and local businesses lose customers when people avoid the area out of annoyance or fear of being approached by homeless people who can behave unpredictably.

As a libertarian, it is usually fairly clear to me what the best policy would be: almost always less government interference in private citizens' lives.

So why, then, do I pretty much agree with a decision made by the Iowa City Council, whom I envision as a round table of Nancy Pelosis: tight-lipped overseers who prevent us from doing what we enjoy, constantly raise our tax bills and spend our money unwisely? I feel deep unease agreeing with them.

As I thought more deeply about the issue, I realized confusion results because the Ped Mall is a common area, an area that we all supposedly own. One letter to this paper concerning this issue states "I value the idea of the commons," a sentiment shared by many of a socialistic bent.

But "the commons" – vaguely-defined ownership – leads to difficulties, prompting questions about the nature of property, law and freedom. What constitutes "ownership" and who really owns "public" areas? Do we have the "right" to behave any way we wish in them? Equally, do we have the "right" to not be bothered in public areas?

Clearly, a common asset or area must have a group or individual that maintains it and makes decisions regarding its use. Otherwise the "tragedy of the commons" can result when individuals use the asset in ways that diminish the value of it for everyone. But not everyone will agree with the decisions that are made.

The Ped Mall already has laws prohibiting urinating, walking and drinking alcohol, nakedness, lying down on the sidewalks, and now smoking. Panhandling restrictions are simply another public behavior law.

In my mind, the Ped Mall is owned and managed by the City (a corporation) with input from the Downtown Business Association. I do not feel that I "own" it at all, since I cannot make any of the decisions about it.

And it doesn't bother me that someone else owns something – I don't feel that I must own a share of one sixty-eight-thousandth of an Iowa City park if I am allowed to walk in it.

But I do have a problem with having no choice about paying for something actually owned by someone else, even if they claim that I "own" it too.

Libertarians, of course, believe that every property and asset should be clearly owned by individuals or voluntary groups.

For instance, the Ped Mall would be owned by the Downtown Business Association, who want to provide a pleasant lingering area near their businesses to draw potential shoppers downtown, likely welcoming outdoor musicians if customers expressed a preference for such, and prohibiting solicitation. Parks would be owned by neighborhoods or by business sponsors to generate community goodwill.

Some will undoubtedly recoil at the idea of not being allowed to feel pride of "ownership" of public areas, but how would our lives really change (other than lower taxes and increased choice about how to spend our money)?

If we believe that we can all "own" something, then we must be prepared to accept less-than-ideal solutions to the complex problems that arise.