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Golf, Guilt, and Capitalism
by Larry Sechrest

Among the several interests I pursue outside my professional activities as an economist is the grand and ancient, but bedeviling, game of golf. I play as frequently as I can, and I also enjoy watching golf on television. However, one thing I most definitely do not enjoy are the frequent "promotional spots" touting the role of the various professional golf tours (PGA, Senior PGA, and LPGA) as charitable, public service institutions.

Anyone who has seen any golf on TV during the last few years surely will know what I am referring to. The format is usually the same. There will be some announcerís voice citing the millions of dollars that professional golf tournaments have recently raised for some charity or other. Then there will appear the smiling face of some well-known golfer and footage of him interacting with the needy. You might see Phil Mickelson encouraging retarded kids, Bob Murphy visiting a hospital, Ray Floyd talking to cancer researchers, or Corey Pavin playing basketball with "inner-city youth". Regardless of the particulars, these spots invariably also include an explicit statement apparently designed to explain and justify such charitable activities. The explanation is that individual golfers undertake these actions, and the several professional golf tours undertake the fundraising, because they feel both that they "have a responsibility to help the less fortunate" and that they must "give something back to their community".

Allow me to explain why I believe that all this is grievously wrongheaded, irrational, and antithetical to capitalism. First of all, any reader who just leaped to the conclusion that I must be some miserly misanthrope who would rather die than give away even one dollar of his monetary income is, simply, wrong. There are, in fact, several private organizations to which I freely and happily contribute every year. It is not charity or generosity per se that I am criticizing. To respond to virtue with generosity is perfectly honorable.

What I oppose are the two sentiments expressed above. Namely, I take exception both to the notion that the "more fortunate" have a moral obligation to assist the "less fortunate" and to the demand that productive, prosperous individuals must "give something back". The first fails to make the crucial distinction between those who are worthy of aid and those who are not. A man of admirable character who has fallen on hard times through no fault of his own is worthy; a man whose misery stems from his own foolishness or irresponsibility is not worthy. The second obviously assumes that those who succeed in life must in some sense do so at the expense of their fellow citizens. That is, the successful allegedly gain their status by exploiting others. How can something be "given back" unless it was stolen in the first place?

One might object to my characterization of the "give something back" proposition as an implicit argument that some form of exploitation has occurred. The reader might insist that all this means is that a nurturing community greatly fosters individual success. Oh, in other words, "it takes a village to raise a golfer"? This is no different than Hillary Clintonís notorious and pernicious doctrine that "it takes a village to raise a child". Human achievement is not a group activity, despite the frequency of cooperation, because thinking is not a group activity. Only collectivists will insist otherwise. And only collectivists will insist that the individual achiever has an obligation to share the fruits of his labor with even the dregs of the human race.

What does all this have to do with capitalism? Professional golfers are, after all, independent businesspeople whose amazing skills bring them a great deal of media attention. And the message they are conveying when they prattle on about "responsibility to the community" is one that is inconsistent with a free market. Indeed, it is a message that may well prove to be suicidal. The pillars of a free society are reason, achievement, and individual rights. The hallmarks of the welfare state are sentimentality, redistribution, and collective entitlements. To defend the former on grounds only appropriate for the latter is, ultimately, to destroy capitalism. The last century of American history offers abundant examples of just that process of incremental destruction.

Pro golfers should feel no guilt about their high incomes; they earn every penny. Very few humans are capable of playing this demanding game with such consummate skill. And the touring pros should reject every suggestion that they must give something back to society at large. They took nothing in the first place. There is nothing to give back. Indeed, their athletic achievements represent a net gain, for they provide us "duffers" with precious and unforgettable memories. We should applaud their triumphs, not accost them like beggars.



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