Choosing your beggars

is begging problematic

The voices in favour of banning begging are getting increasingly louder in Sweden. Politicians rally behind polls and surveys that are showing us the facts: The people are clearly fed up with street begging.

Sweden has had a huge wave of beggars, mainly from Romania and Bulgaria, and its now rare to not see someone asking for coins outside most stores in all medium and large cities – Even smaller cities have been hit with the phenomenon to a degree.

Are these people properly poor and in a humanitarian crisis? Is begging in Sweden worth more than working at home? Is this a monetary industry that is networked and made into a system by mob bosses? The opinion is split on the subject on the question of “why are these people here?” and it’s hard to find consensus amongst the many voices that want to give their view on the matter. I’ve seen proof covering all sides so I guess the answer to the question should be: “It depends on who you are talking about”. To stick to one side of the reason behind that the beggars are traveling from eastern Europe to Scandinavia would be too one-dimensional and not cover the whole picture.

Swedes have more or less tolerated what’s been going on but have now hit a boiling point where they are starting to voice concerns and even want to stop the begging through parliamentary means – Asking the politicians for bans as a preventive measure. I will try to break down how badly this “solution” will hit its mark and offer alternatives.

First, we need to look at what will happen to this group of people when we ban asking for money on the street. As we do not have a great real-world example of this in modern times to show, we need to look at instances where the income starts to fall from begging and we have some information on the matter from Norway.

Norway has been struggling with street beggars from eastern Europe just like Sweden, and Norwegians have stopped putting as much money into beggar cups as they used to and this has led the beggars into alternative income sources on the Norwegian “market”: Theft, prostitution and drug trade. An uptick in these activities has been documented as the income from plain old begging decrease. It is reasonable to assume that if the revenue stream from begging drops to zero the other areas have to compensate, no?

So in a scenario where you outlaw begging, you have now put the native homeless and needy in a pinch by eliminating one of their ways of sustaining themselves temporarily and most likely scaled up local prostitution and drug trade. You have made people less free in their interactions as an added ‘bonus’. You have in essence forbidden people to be charitable to each other, restricting the ownership a person has over their actions. Nothing in this outcome is particularly good, in fact, you have made the situation worse for everyone.

Anatole France The Law Quote.jpg

Even if this backside didn’t exist and let us assume we go forth and implement some sort of restriction or law on asking for money in public: What is the punishment for disobeying this law going to be? Are officers of the law going to issue fines? A fine that will go unpaid: These are people presumably so poor that they couldn’t realistically pay a fine – Now you are using police resources to attempt to collect money from poor people!

Is jail time a reasonable punishment? Is begging really that high caliber of a crime that the people doing it should be arrested and caged? The Conservative party of Sweden think so and I disagree fully – It is a destructive use of money that will give nothing of value back. It is a pure money sink for the citizens paying for it through their tax money. In a stroke of irony, the Conservative party is skeptical to ‘beggar permits’ proposed by another party, since it would add additional administrative work for police officers – Which arresting and detaining people magically wouldn’t, I guess.

So, how do we solve this in a matter that doesn’t infringe on anyone’s natural right to give money to whoever they please and still find a satisfying solution?

If we want to try a practical way: Allow property owners rights to their own land. The most lucrative spots to beg at is usually around stores and malls. The land around a store (in the form of a parking spot, sidewalk etc) is considered part of the commons, no matter the owner of the actual land, meaning owners are not allowed to remove disturbing elements from their property. To me, this would be a pretty agreeable way to restrict the ‘hunting grounds’ for the beggars and any property owners that see value in having beggars around are free to allow them a spot. How this isn’t the default is quite the mystery to me.

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“Begging should be banned” (SvD, paywalled, in Swedish)

Conservative parties stance on prison for repeated begging (Aftonbladet, in Swedish)

Beggars in Oslo turn to drug trade (Aftenposten, in Norwegian)

Norwegian Police: Beggars starts selling narcotics (ABC News, in Norwegian)

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