All Commentary
Sunday, April 1, 1962

The Prince of the Thing

Mr. Barger is Editor of The Flying A, company magazine of the Aeroquip Corporation at Jack­son, Michigan.

Somewhere in New York City there is a young teen-age boy to whom, by the bad logic of our times, I owe a quarter. The debt has lingered now for almost a year, and probably won’t be paid. One reason: I wouldn’t recognize him, for it was twilight and I got only a few fleeting glimpses of his face. Another: he was quite angry at the moment when I did get a good look at him, so under normal conditions this would make recognition doubly hard. A third consideration: by my own logic—good, I hope—the debt doesn’t exist.

It was an extraordinary and startling occurrence. I had stopped my car at a Tenth Avenue inter­section, close by the Lincoln Tun­nel exit into Manhattan. Seemingly appearing out of nowhere, this young teen-age boy all but vaulted onto the hood of my car and started wiping the windshield. For a moment I sat there in amazement at this unsolicited good deed. Then I realized that my young benefactor was actually giving this service for a tip of some sort; and since the traffic light changes occurred rapidly, he could not be expected to do any­thing approaching a thorough job. Yet, unless this was the first at­tempt at an unproven venture, ex­perience had no doubt shown him that many motorists would toss out a coin or two upon driving away.

The youngster probably expected only a quarter, but I balked at giving it. There was something wrong with this operation in prin­ciple; and at the risk of being an irascible who shatters the dreams of youth, I stuck my reactionary head out the window and barked: “Look, son, I would just as soon you wouldn’t do that. You shouldn’t clean a man’s windshield out here on the street, and not unless he wants it done. Now I didn’t ask you to do this.”

I realized immediately that there are times when you’re al­ways wrong. The young entre­preneur, obviously and under­standably hurt, climbed off my car and snapped: “Well, I’m trying to earn money in an honest way! That’s better than stealing, ain’t it?” There was a great deal of indignation in his voice, as if he were somewhat unable to believe that the twentieth century still accommodates some medieval minds who don’t understand the economic pressures working on juveniles.

Grateful for the anonymity of the twilight, I drove quickly away at the light change, feeling the youngster’s reproach stinging at my shoulder blades. I felt a little like the man who has inadvert­ently stepped on a child’s sand castle, but is then incapable of re­pairing it. For I had read much about the problems of juvenile de­linquency in New York City, and I had to admit that there must be much in favor of a youth who is willing to work instead of steal. The principle I was trying to de­fend seemed rather shabby arid selfish under the circumstances. It was simply that a man should al­ways have a voluntary choice in the spending of his money. He should not have to pay for a serv­ice unless he has contracted for it, or has acquired an obligation through due process of law. I had not contracted for the young boy’s windshield wiping services.

Now up until then I did not even know that this was one of my principles. It was, but I just did not have a way of stating it. The nameless young entrepreneur had helped me to realize just what it was myself.

Still, it would have been easy to flip him a coin or two as I drove away. This would have seemed to be the humanitarian thing; it would have been the gesture of the “good sport.” And it wouldn’t have been at all expensive! My reluct­ance to do so must have been the tired old feeling that we used to call “the principle of the thing.”

Under Obligation

It should be clear that the youngster was indulging in a somewhat disguised form of beg­ging. Of course, there is probably nothing morally wrong in beg­ging, though the law frowns on it in most cities. Beggars are at least honest in that they don’t pretend to offer a service in return for what you give them. They are soliciting a handout, pure and simple. They do not attempt to put you under some kind of an obligation.

Here, I was apparently being put under a double obligation. (1) It was being implied that I should provide a gratuity for the un­wanted service. (2) It was also being implied that as a citizen I had some kind of an obligation to subsidize a youth “who did not steal.” In other words, I was being told that I was getting a chance to “reward virtue and to do some­thing about the juvenile delin­quency problem.” If a federal planner had been on the scene, he might have supplemented the young man’s retort by warning me that if I, the private sector, didn’t help this young man solve his prob­lems, pretty soon the federal gov­ernment would have to take action.

For much has happened during the year since this took place. There has been renewed emphasis on programs spawned by the dog­mas called “environmentalism” and “economic determinism.” Congress­men have proposed multimillion dollar programs to combat juvenile delinquency. A multibillion dollar effort called Alliance for Progress is underway in Latin America to stop the tide of communism. There is a high-powered movement in progress to pour federal funds into the public education program. These programs all accept the basic premise that everybody’s problems have an economic origin; hence, liberal doses of money will solve them.

Everyone Is Responsible—Except Individuals!

The root of the problem lies, in fact, in the acceptance of these dogmas as being true. If a man is the helpless product of the eco­nomic conditions into which he is born, does this not relieve him of all personal responsibility for the outcome of his life? Can he not shift the blame to others who al­legedly denied him what it would have taken to turn his life into better channels? Is he not encour­aged to abandon the often strenu­ous attempts individuals have to make for their own moral and mental betterment? Finally, we arrive at a point where nobody is responsible for anything, and the only malef actors or ne’er-do-wells are those who still cling to the “ideas of the past.”

I’m sure that by now the New York Police Department has dis­covered the young boy’s activities and put a stop to them—but for safety reasons, not moral ones. The greater damage is that dozens of passing drivers were themselves so susceptible to this mild extor­tion that they yielded to it, there by reinforcing both in themselves and in the boy the hazy notion that token, unsolicited effort de­serves automatic reward. These persons were, in fact, far guiltier than he, for if they had refused, one by one, to deliver their con­tributions, the boy soon would have declared bankruptcy and “closed out the business.” He would have learned that there was no real market for this kind of service.

Why didn’t they, then, since many of them must have felt an­noyed by the intrusion? My an­swer is only a hunch, but I sus­pect that most of them hated to appear as poor sports, and also had blurred notions themselves about correct principles of eco­nomic exchange. Failing to recog­nize that it sometimes takes as much courage to be temporarily cast in the role of a “poor sport” as it does to face actual physical danger, they were willing to sub­sidize a shakedown operation rather than to stand firmly on principle. It is possible that they also rationalized it by convincing themselves they were “helping the boy out,” when in fact they were supporting his indolence.

The problem of what to do about the boy remains, as does the entire mounting problem of juven­ile rootlessness. I suspect that he was indeed a pathetic victim—a victim of a loveless and/or broken home with little training and no moral instruction, the kind of a home the economic determinists point to when they demand more funds for social rehabilitation pro­grams. This is a serious matter; and I must never believe that be­cause the boy’s services weren’t worth my paltry quarters, I am therefore absolved of any human interest in the outcome of his life. In his remarkable sermon entitled “The Greatest Thing in the World,” the missionary, Henry Drummond, pointed out that there is little real social concern in hand­ing out coins on the street, but that our real goal should be in seeking a higher social concern for the redemption of others:

“It is a very easy thing to toss a copper to a beggar on the street; it is generally an easier thing than not to do it. Yet love is just as often in the withholding. We pur­chase relief from the sympathetic feelings roused by the spectacle of misery, at the copper’s cost. It is too cheap—too cheap for us, and often too dear for the beggar. If we really loved him, we would either do more for him, or less.”

  • Melvin D. Barger is a retired corporate public relations representative and writer who lives in Toledo, Ohio. He has been a contributor to The Freeman since 1961.