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Friday, November 9, 2012

Bloomberg Donations Ban and Perverse Consequences

NYC's nanny-in-chief, Michael Bloomberg, just came out with his most recent decree: Banning food donations to homeless shelters. [EDIT: This ban was actually enacted in March. I was going off of the news story I read Friday morning, which has since been edited and corrected.]

What does it say about a person's character when he stops people from donating to shelters that want to help feed the hungry and homeless–people who have been especially hard-hit since the double whammy of Sandy and the nor'easter?

Maybe Bloomberg has good intentions. His staff can't regulate the amount of salt, fat, and fiber in the food being donated and distributed to those in need. How can the government in NYC be sure that the homeless are getting proper nutrition if food gifts aren't regulated?

The problem with Bloomberg's good intentions is that he seems to ignores the unseen effects. Here are just a few likely consequences of this ban:

  • The effects of hunger are more immediately harmful to needy individuals than their consuming sodium, fat, or whatever. Bloomberg assumes that hungry people prefer food with “healthy” levels of salt, fat, and fiber to no food at all. If this assumption is wrong (and I have a hunch that it is), he is needlessly depriving people of food.
  • Giving Bloomberg's food regulation Gestapo the benefit of the doubt, what if food contamination is actually a larger problem than sodium and fat? If this is the case, driving donation centers underground would take them out of the scope of the regulators who are purported to ensure food is free of contamination.
  • Bans like this are likely to deter the philanthropic sector and grow the regulatory-social-work-industrial complex of New York. The last thing we need in America after natural disasters is more crowdout of civil society.
  • Bans like these needlessly build in a cultural chauvinism about homeless people. Basically, Bloomberg is saying “homeless people can’t make their own dietary choices, but the would-be benefactors can.” This is crude paternalism.
  • Food will be wasted and people who want to donate food to the hungry might incur unnecessary costs in disposing of it.

We don't need Michael Bloomberg to tell generous people what they can and can't do to help. Nor do we need Bloomberg to protect homeless people from themselves, particularly as many are homeless due to problems that are way bigger than the temporary effects of salts, sodas and transfats.

We need to have the freedom to do what our conscience tells us is right. If people in New York City want to give hot soup and bagels to the hungry, it is unconscionable to stop them. Let the hungry decide for themselves whether it is better to have non-state-approved nutrition levels or no food at all. In the spirit of Leonard Read, let them do “anything that's peaceful.”

What might be some other perverse effects of this donation ban? Leave your thoughts in the comments.