Supporting professional sports shouldn't be left to taxpayers

December 02, 1997|By Sheldon Richman

NO SOONER did Wayne Huizinga's Florida Marlins win the World Series than he repeated his hope that the city of Miami would build the team a new baseball park. Mr. Huizinga is a successful businessman who is convinced that the city will not finance the park if he is connected with the team. So he is willing to sell his World Champions if necessary to ensure that the park is built.

The idea that the taxpayers should pay for professional sports facilities is a rather dramatic illustration of how far we have drifted from the founding ideals of this country. The prevailing view at the time of the founding was the government should do little more than keep the domestic peace and protect against foreign aggression. Otherwise, people were to be left to shape their own lives through voluntary association with others. It has been widely noted that before the Civil War, most people rarely saw a government official, apart from the postmaster.

Unfortunately, the scope of government began to expand in the second half of the 19th century and has been expanding ever since. Government now was supposed to take care of the poor, regulate business, protect consumers and do all manner of things that were previously left to the dynamic private marketplace and the network of voluntary associations. The result was an increasing tax burden and greater regimentation of life, which is what you'd expect when the government grows. After all, as George Washington reputedly said, government is not reason, it is force.

A ludicrous notion

Even though we have seen a great expansion of government power at all levels, there is still something especially ludicrous about governments building sports facilities. Why in the world should the taxpayers be forced to pay for a baseball stadium? Many people care nothing for baseball, football or basketball. Isn't it obvious that it is wrong for those people to be compelled to pay for the entertainment of other people? It seems to be a rather basic point.

One answer given to the question is that a downtown sports facility is good for the city. It is said to be able to stimulate business for restaurants, stores and other enterprises in often moribund center cities. And maybe it will. So what?

This is a classic case of looking only at the visible effects of a public policy and not at the invisible effects. If the taxpayers are forced to build a stadium, that structure will be highly visible. What will not be seen is what would have been built with the money if it had been left in the taxpayers' pockets. They would not have hidden the money in their mattresses. They would have spent or invested it. Either way, other businesses would have been stimulated. In other words, a tax-funded stadium doesn't only transfer wealth from the taxpayers who don't like sports to taxpayers who do, it transfers wealth from businesses that would have benefited from lower taxes to those that benefit from a new stadium.

The big question, then is: Should government really be picking beneficiaries and victims through subsidies? I cannot see the moral justification of taking money from one group of citizens to provide entertainment and business to another group.

It is said that businessmen, who are often mistaken for supporters of free markets, blackmail city governments in order to get them to force the taxpayers to cough up the money. Team owners have threatened to move their teams unless a new stadium is built compliments of the taxpayers. Cities have even engaged in bidding wars with the taxpayers' money to attract teams.

Redskin park

Not every team owner has taken such a shameful path. The late Jack Kent Cooke built a stadium for his Redskins. Other owners have done the same. Teams are profit-making enterprises, and the idea that their owners should loot the taxpayers to increase their profits is outrageous.

Sports can be a great way to escape from the cares of everyday life. The dedication and persistence can be inspiring for our own endeavors. But let's not be so blinded by the virtues of sports that we are willing to sacrifice political morality in the process. No matter how constructive professional sports are, forcing the taxpayer to foot the bill cannot be justified.

Sheldon Richman is senior fellow at The Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax, Va.

Pub Date: 12/02/97

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