Tony Cotzias | Fighting against the exile of morality

Guest Column | Why should we need permits to help the homeless?

· April 19, 2012, 12:23 am   ·  Updated April 23, 2012, 12:11 am

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We have exiled morality. The contemporary political scene is almost solely defined by the gratification of special interests, the endless pursuit of prestigious political positions (at a very high moral cost), the arrogance of deciding other people’s lives for them (without their consent, even if a majority has supposedly voted on the issue) and the insulting struggle for more money and power. As this situation escalates, there is no other choice but to speak out.

In the city of Philadelphia, the mayor has effectively decided to ban feeding homeless in open parks. More specifically, section 109 of the City of Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation’s Regulations Regarding Outdoor Feeding, dated March 14, states that:

“No person, group, or organization may engage in Outdoor Feeding anywhere in the Fairmount Park system.”

To make it even clearer that this applies to all other parks as well, it states that:

“No person, group, or organization may engage in Outdoor Feeding in any City of Philadelphia park that is not subject to the regulations governing the Fairmont Park system.”

Setting aside the outrageous inefficiency of this wording, I wonder whether there exists anything more grotesque than banning voluntary charity. Is there anything more noble and moral than freely showing (and receiving) compassion? Is there any difference if the government sanctions or prohibits such activities? As George Orwell writes in 1984, “in the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it.”

Yet, there is more. Craig Stroman, founder of We Feed the Homeless Philly, indicated to me that “there are two other pieces to the mayor’s shameful policy. He has required all churches, organizations and nonprofits to get a permit to feed on the street and to get training through the health department.”

Conclusion: We need permits in order to help each other. What does this mean? Does the government own the homeless and can it decide when and where they can receive compassion? Does the government have the authority to decide whether or not we are eligible to go in public spaces and feed the homeless? I cannot understand.

Of course, though, there has to be a valid justification.

“The mayor said in his statement that it is not dignified to have people standing in line to get food but wants to have them fed at City Hall,” Stroman said. “Note, though, that there has never been an epidemic of homeless persons being poisoned or becoming sick on the streets from receiving meals from churches, civic organizations or nonprofit organizations.”

Thus, not only has the government strangled this city in every possible way (by requiring permits for everything imaginable, prohibiting so very many profitable activities — especially victimless crimes — and by directly and indirectly subsidizing the “insiders”), it has also imposed its moralistic judgements on the city’s people. Not only have the homeless been denied the creation of numerous opportunities which could help improve their lives, the government now claims that it alone can help them.

The government has no right (morally, not legally) to enforce its own conception of the “good” merely because some officials feel that the homeless are not in a dignified state when “standing in line to get food.” Imagine injuring someone and then complaining that the hospital isn’t treating him well.

Thus, we have destroyed any space required for the operation of the voluntary aspect of society; for a society whose members do not need the permission of the government to help each other and to live with each other. And for those who claim that such regulations are necessary, I ask them how can they refuse to trust the society as a whole, but believe that somehow, through the ferocious campaigns and power struggles embodied in the fights for election, people who can be trusted are (and will be) running our lives (because ultimately it becomes a question of trust)?

As Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The State is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior strength. I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is strongest.”

Yours in liberty.

Tony Cotzias is a College freshman from Athens, Greece. His email address is acotz@sas.upenn.edu.

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