- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Among the many rationales used to defend the welfare state, the most powerful is that it is necessary, to take care of the poor and the downtrodden. But the amount of money required to bring every poor person in the country above the official poverty line is a fraction of the government spends on the welfare state.

Put bluntly, the poor are in effect used as human shields in the political wars over government spending, which extends far beyond anyone who could even plausibly be called poor.

Politicians will spend money wherever it is likely to increase their chances of re-election. Of all the things governments spend money on, none is further removed from fighting poverty than municipal golf courses. Are taxpayers asked to support municipal golf courses so the poor and the downtrodden can play? Not bloody likely.

San Francisco has six municipal golf courses — and they lose money. Now there is all sorts of hand-wringing over what to do about it.

An economist might see this as a nonproblem. If the golf courses are losing money, get rid of them. Given San Francisco’s sky high land prices, selling the land that the golf courses are on would bring in millions, if not billions, of dollars.

But such advice is why so few economists get elected to political office. A politician has to be all things to all people — a friend of the golfers, a protector of the workers who maintain the golf courses, and of course a believer in mother and apple pie.

Even the suggestion of turning over the golf courses to some private operator has caused opposition. One golfer declared: “Privatization would raise greens fees. Nobody could afford it.”

This is the kind of talk that has to be taken seriously by elected officials, even if an economist would dismiss it as sheer nonsense. Have you ever heard of any business raising its prices to the point where it no longer had any customers?

Obviously, “Nobody could afford it” really means this particular golfer and others like him might not be willing to pay it. But that is the whole point of prices — to determine where resources go when different people want to use the same resources for different purposes and have to bid against each other.

If you put San Francisco’s golf courses on the open market, in a city with a serious housing shortage and sky-high housing prices, chances are the land occupied by golf courses would quickly be bid away by those who would build much-needed housing.

Of course, this would make the city’s municipal golf course workers unhappy. And unhappy municipal workers can be a big problem for a politician, especially if these are union workers.

How have San Francisco’s golf courses been kept going when they cost more to maintain than they are receiving in fees from the golfers who use them? Recent renovations alone cost more than $23 million.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “The city closed the gap with $16.6 million from state bond funds meant for recreation and park projects in underserved and economically disadvantaged areas.” In other words, the poor have once again been used as human shields, this time to protect golfers.

The great allure of government programs in general for many people is that these programs allow for decisions to be made without worrying about the constraints of prices, which confront people at every turn in a free market.

They see prices as obstacles or nuisances, instead of messages conveying underlying realities that are there whether or not prices are allowed to function. What prices tell San Francisco is that municipal golf courses cost more than they are worth — not in my opinion, but in the actions of people spending their own hard-earned money.

But what politician wants to hear that? Politics is priceless.

Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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