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The Marketplace, Orwell’s Mistake, and Homeless Entrepreneurs

Last updated on January 11, 2021

One thing we can take for granted is that in order to make an exchange in the marketplace of goods and services we must offer something of value. It’s fundamental to capitalism and to life itself.

In his semi-autobiographical novel, Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell wrote about the hardships that beggars encounter daily. Orwell wrote that a beggar works just as hard as someone pursuing a job, and that a beggar deserves remuneration.

With all due respect to Orwell, one of the great political writers of the twentieth century, he had a socialist misunderstanding of basic economics. The missing ingredient in the case of the beggar is value. He offers no value for the money. He seeks alms, a handout, charity, without offering anything in return.

The fact that a person may work very hard at begging—standing or sitting for long hours in difficult circumstances—doesn’t make up for the fact that he offers no value. Of course, the person passing by may give the man money and feel good about his charity. But the beggar has not given anything in return, except perhaps a thank you.

Those who are homeless face this fact every day as they seek money to survive on the streets. Instead of begging, some try to offer value, such as holding a door open for people entering a store. Or they may get creative as a homeless acquaintance of mine did on the streets of Boston. For the longest time he sat in the same spot near the corner of two busy city streets.

He was a fixture there. Each day he would have a display of some sort set up to catch the attention of passersby. For instance, one day he had a signboard behind him congratulating Frank Sinatra on his 80th birthday. He had written down a short history of Sinatra’s career.

Other days, he would list all the famous people who had birthdays (and their age) on that day. He also had books of jokes that he had written down on every conceivable subject.

I developed a friendship with this man and would talk to him each day as I passed on my way to work. He’d ask me to give him a subject, such as politics, or baseball, and would then tell me a joke about it. He’d consult his many books and come up with many jokes on the subject. Some were quite good. He suggested that I tell some of his jokes at the office when I got into work. I’d usually give him pocket change or a dollar. He had given me a value in exchange.

The world was a little better and more interesting because this man was there, pursuing his “trade.”  He spoke openly about this being his work.

I hadn’t seen him for a few weeks, so I was surprised one day to see that he didn’t have his usually display of interesting things. Instead, he carried a sign that read “Homeless, drug-free and sober.”  I asked him what had happened to his usual signs and interesting displays. He told me that a cop hassled him about it, asking him what he was selling, and then demanding to see his vendor’s permit and sales tax log.

He told the cop that he wasn’t selling anything, but this officer of the law threatened to give him a $50 ticket for vending without a license. Yet holding up a sign saying “Homeless, drug-free and sober” was all right, since he was now obviously begging, not trying to offer anything of value to those who passed by.

I tried to convince him to go back to his displays and pick a new spot. But, he was now convinced that he was no longer a free man in a free country.  He was right.

Local laws, restrictions, and sales tax requirements keep enterprising homeless individuals in a state of permanent limbo, unable to try their hand at offering value instead of pleas for spare change. For a further perspective on this issue, check out the article from Medium, “Homeless Entrepreneurs.”

Ken West is the author of Get What You Want!  and the soon-to-be published in 2021, Real Capitalism.

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