Thomas Sowell

Among the many rationales used to defend the welfare state, the most powerful is that it is necessary, in order 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 what is spent by government on the welfare state.

Put bluntly, the poor are in effect being 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 that is likely to increase their chances of getting re-elected. Of all the things that governments spend money on, none is further removed from fighting poverty than municipal golf courses.

Are the taxpayers being asked to support municipal golf courses so that the poor and the downtrodden can play? Not bloody likely.

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

An economist might see this as a non-problem. If the golf courses are losing money, then 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 that the golf courses might be turned over to some private operator of golf courses 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, what "Nobody could afford it" really means is that 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 good that the land occupied by golf courses would quickly be bid away by those who would build some much-needed housing.


Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

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