National Post Full Comment Forum: Too much squeegeeing, too few laws

National Post - Friday August 10th, 2012

Richard Arless Jr/Postmedia News
A "squeegee kid" washes windows in Montreal.

Montreal businessman Peter Sergakis says it’s time to get serious about homelessness. After chasing some “squeegee kids” away from his restaurant, he’s advocating more services and “outreach”, combined with tougher enforcement. Is he a crank or a visionary?

Jesse Kline in Toronto: Sergakis has every right to be angry. If the perpetrators get off with little more than a slap on the wrist for trespassing and vandalizing private property, then we should be looking at why prosecutors and police are skirting their responsibilities.

It is laudable that Sergakis is trying to set up a community group to help deal with the homelessness problem in his area, but many of his policy proposals go way too far. People may find panhandlers and squeegee kids annoying, but that does not mean they should be banned or chased out of town. At the very least, squeegee kids are putting themselves to work. Incidents of violence should be dealt with to the full extent of the law, but the solution is not to ban their livelihood. They have just as much right to try and earn a living by washing windows as Sergakis does by making meals.

I disagree that we should be putting more public money into homelessness. We have been steadily increasing the size of the welfare state for decades and have seen very little impact in terms of reducing poverty and getting people off the street. The best policy is to increase the number of opportunities to make money in ways that don’t hurt other people, and growing the economy so everyone can enjoy the benefits of an increased labour force.

Barbara Kay in Montreal: Deciding how much public money should go into the alleviation of homelessness, and how such monies should be deployed goes beyond my pay grade. In principle nobody should have to sleep in the street, and in principle nobody should go hungry for want of money. The homelessness issue is a sidebar, though. Plenty of homeless people keep a low profile, stay out of the faces of business people, panhandle with courtesy and never overstep territorial bounds in doing so. They are not threatening to ordinary people. The squeegee people disrupt the social contract by moving into other people’s “comfort zones” and if I were running a commercial enterprise and they invaded my comfort zone, I would react exactly like Sergakis.

You say squeegee people “have just as much right to earn a living washing windows as Sergakis does by making meals.” You make it sound as though Sergakis and the squeegee people were simply two sides of the same entrepreneurial coin.

But they aren’t. One form of commerce provides a service that people want and are willing to pay for. The squeegee people are not running a “business”. They are aggressive panhandlers with a gimmick, and sometimes intimidation. Our first obligation is to the honest merchant. If we’re going to talk about rights, in a situation where rights collide — Sergakis’ right to do legitimate business without fear of intimidation against panhandlers’ right to accost people at their pleasure — Sergakis’ must prevail. He cannot move his business, and he will lose money if the squeegee people dominate his premises. They have nothing to lose by moving on.

Kline: I completely agree that the restaurateur provides more value to society than the squeegee kid. By the same token, the squeegee kid provides more value than the panhandler. I also agree it would be much better if the people making a living by washing windows would go out and get a real job. But that does not mean the shop owner should have special rights the squeegee kid does not. If that were the case, imagine all the struggling artists whose talents we would suppress because we don’t yet realize the value of their work. Or the inventor who has not made anything useful, but, in 10 years time, will invent a piece of technology that will change the world. Rather than trying to argue the jobs are “two sides of the same coin,” I’m trying to separate the job from the crime.

Sergakis’s property rights were violated when the people refused to leave and started breaking stuff. This is illegal regardless of the perpetrators’ backgrounds. If it had been school teachers smashing bowls, would we try and regulate them out of existence? No. Let’s stop pretending the fact that the crime was committed by squeegee kids is at all important.

As for the squeegee kids themselves, I agree they can be annoying. I also dislike telemarketers and in-your-face shop owners who use aggressive tactics to sell their wares at the market. But I don’t think we should start overregulating them just because I find their business practices distasteful. It can be scary when someone approaches your car and demands money, but it’s not too hard to tell them to leave. Getting into close proximity to our vehicle does not violate some sort of magical “comfort zone” that people can be stopped from trespassing in.

I wouldn’t ban squeegeeing or try to increase regulation on them. Instead, we should focus on upholding existing laws against violence and vandalism, while working to decrease regulation more broadly, in an effort to improve the economy so these people have an easier time finding productive work.

Kay: Okay, we agree that the restaurateur offers the most social and economic value. Good.

But the only reason you are rating the value of the squeegee guy over the passive panhandler is because he offers a “service”. But as I have already argued, a service is not a service if it is forced on you. Squeegeeing sets up an artificial scenario that has the appearance of a market exchange but is the opposite: in a free market the consumer seeks out the service because he decides what he needs and wants. Here the “consumer” is forced into the role of a consumer by the “service provider”. The only reason people pay for the squeegee is because they reflexively assume they have been “given” something for free. But they weren’t given anything; they are the victims of extortion.

Let’s look at the real prototype of the service-providing panhandler, namely, the busker. You know, the guys who hang out in subway tunnels and other acoustic-enhancing environments and play their violin or guitar or accordion (and some of them are very good) as you walk by. You, the potential consumer, are free to reward the musician or not; if you don’t, you’ve just received a musical treat for nothing. Of course you may consider it an irritant if the music sucks, but in any case you aren’t exposed to it for long and you are free to reward it or not. If you choose not to, nothing will happen to you. Rewarding a polite busker or a passive panhandler does no harm to the social fabric, unless panhandling rises to a critical mass, in which case a whole neighbourhood can go downhill, another issue.

But rewarding extortionists increases the likelihood that more mere panhandlers will realize there is more money in aggression than passivity and join in; pretty soon people start avoiding the area. Once again, Sergakis and others like him are being victimized because the city has not taken responsibility to provide an environment of psychological safety, where interactions between citizens are bounded by unspoken but necessary rules of courtesy and reciprocity.

You can hang up on telemarketers, who are unlikely to be abusive in any case. They are constrained both by common sense and the fear of personal consequences. One can walk out of a store when the seller is over-solicitous, which will teach the store owner to be less assertive next time. But squeegees cannot be so easily avoided, since they answer to nobody, and since aggression rather than common courtesy actually pays off for them.

You say we should bolster existing laws against vandalism so that vandals are punished. Me, I would prevent vandalism through regulation that inhibits their activity. An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.

Kline: You continue to equate the identity we have chosen to give these kids with the crime in question. How exactly is Sergakis being victimized? Are they over-washing the windshields on his delivery vans? Are they trying to squeegee his customers’ glassware? No. He was victimized because they jumped onto the patio and started harassing him.

The government is not responsible for ensuring we live in a civil society — that is the responsibility of society itself. The squeegee kids are not doing panhandling because the government is enabling them, but because people give them money. If you want them to stop, don’t give them money. The only thing you seem to dislike is that they may give you a dirty look. Other than that, it is exactly the same as a telemarketer trying to sell you a vacuum. You can “hang up” on the squeegee kid, just like you can hang up the telephone. So what is the solution: Do we ban dirty looks, do we assume that all squeegee kids are giving dirty looks and make it harder for them to earn a living? If a panhandler or busker is being rude, should we go after them as well?

The idea that the state is responsible for regulating social mores, is the same mentality used by despotic regimes. The Taliban banned ice cream, because they believed it was a Western indulgence that had no place in their society. Here in the West, many cities have banned ice cream trucks because they play annoying music and entice children with treats that lead to obesity and other health-related problems. The two mentalities are not all that different — both want to use the state to create a better society and both want to ban ice cream. But in the process, we lose our liberty — the one thing that makes liberal democracies better than other societies. I would rather tolerate squeegee kids than live in such a world.

Kay: The crime in question was bound to happen when you have public space being co-opted by gangs who take the attitude that they are owed a living by means that transgress the fragile social contract that keeps most people in line. Squeegee people tend to congregate in groups, and are emboldened by their numbers to break the rules of civility. So to me the real significance of the article is not what should be done about this case – and we agree in any case that he has the right to ask them to leave – but to the larger question of where the line is between solicitation of money and what is a “business”.

I have already submitted that squeegee people are a specific subset of panhandling and that squeegeeing does not meet the standard of a business. You say that existing laws cover squeegee people already. But there are already panhandling rules that are not being enforced in the case of squeegee people. For example, panhandlers are not allowed to touch people; they are not allowed to impede their movement; they are not allowed to act or speak in a hostile manner. But all of this is exactly what squeegee people do routinely in order to impose their “service” on you. Touching my car without permission is no different from touching my clothing without permission. If a street panhandler dared to put his hand on my arm to coerce my attention, I would report his action to the police. These things can escalate quickly if they are not nipped in the bud.

I am totally onside with you about the freedom to sell ice cream and so forth. But those are real businesses and the rules I mentioned in my last entry apply to them. They can advertise their wares and people are free to buy or not buy. They don’t shove ice cream cones into your face so that you must actually physically circumvent their aggressive “sales” pitch.

There are always going to be trade-offs with personal liberty. My cut-off between squeegee people’s liberties to impose their “service” on me is the fact that I believe one has the right to be left alone in the public forum. If I must by voice or action tell someone to back off, then they have already transgressed the social contract.

I agree that we should not expect to live totally “sanitized” lives and that the occasional irritant by other individuals must be tolerated. But when an irritant becomes institutionalized, so to speak – and when a spontaneous individual act of anti-social aggression becomes a routine aspect of a neighbourhood, with overtones of gang intimidation, we have a social problem that cannot be solved, except by authoritative intervention.

The government is not responsible for making society civil, but it is responsible for providing environments in which optimal civility may organically flourish.

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