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Why Do the Taxpayers Have to Support Professional Sports?

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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. 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 belief 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 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.

Even though we have seen a great expansion of government power at all levels, there is still something especially ludicrous about government’s 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. Any reasonable notion of justice would find that policy defective.

It is sad 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 complements of the taxpayers. Cities have even engaged in bidding wars with the taxpayers’ money to attract teams.

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.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.