Norway, one of the world’s richest nations, is about to ban begging in a move some see as a sign of rising anti-immigrant sentiment. Whatever the motivation, it’s the work of misguided people who want to hide what they can’t understand.
A recent government-commissioned report says there are between 500 and 1,000 foreign beggars on the streets of Oslo. The city estimates it will spend 5 million kronor ($824,000) this year just cleaning up after them. Locals believe most of them are Roma, a group commonly known as Gypsies who arrived from Romania and other east European countries in search of free food and clothes in the oil-rich country, which was largely unscathed by the global financial crisis and boasts one of the world’s highest incomes per capita. Local charity organizations are relatively generous, but no one will rent housing to the beggars, so they are forced to squat or live rough, which in Norway often means sleeping on the ground in sub-zero temperatures.
Politicians from the anti-immigrant Progress Party, part of the country’s ruling coalition, believe the beggars are part of organized crime syndicates. It’s an idea that has a long history all over the world. “The professional beggar makes New York his hunting ground, and dresses for his character like any other actor,” went a 1894 article in The North American Review, entitled “Street Begging As a Fine Art.” “Nor is the occupation very unpleasant. Inured to the open air, beggars are much healthier than the pent-up factory hand or shop-girl.” Last April, Lisa Scaffidi, the mayor of Perth, Australia, insisted the city’s beggars were an organized group and asked the state legislature to outlaw them: “We are not making this stuff up,” she said.
Although the claim is hard to substantiate, the Norwegian politicians have mustered enough votes in parliament first to allow municipalities to forbid begging and now to impose an outright national ban from 2015. While making life more difficult for the supposed pros, the ban would also wipe off the street the genuine sympathy cases ― people like Nathaniel Ayers, the talented violinist brought low by schizophrenia whom the journalist Steve Lopez found in Los Angeles playing a two-stringed violin for change.
It’s cruel and unnecessary. Anyone convinced that beggars are professionals can simply pass them by without giving anything, and aggressive panhandling is punishable as a public nuisance under different laws. The Progress Party’s political opponents have compared the ban to a 200-year-old effort to keep Jews out of Norway. Rather than being a practical move, it more likely reflects the troubled psychology of its supporters.
A 2008 article in the American Journal of Psychology describes an experiment that tied attitudes toward beggars to perceptions of justice. French researchers interviewed 30 people in Grenoble who had just put money in a beggar’s cup and another 30 who passed by without pulling out their wallets. They found that the more people believed in a just world for others, the less they were inclined to make a donation. In other words, they believed that the down-and-out deserve their fate. By contrast, people who believe in a just world for themselves were relatively generous givers ― perhaps, the researchers speculated, because they are generally more content.
Psychological research indicates that people who believe, deep down, that the world is fair to others tend to avoid any information to the contrary. They are troubled by the concept of innocent victims, and they rationalize away what they see ― for example, by insisting that beggars are actually well-to-do professionals. Norwegians understood this when they lifted a begging ban that existed prior to 2006. Now, they seem to have forgotten.
Ultimately, the ban is not likely to survive in one of Europe’s most left-leaning and happy countries. Those who believe in a just world for others and those who think life is fair to them should not be isolated from the spectacle of destitution, whatever they choose to do about it. The hard-hearted will never change unless they’re constantly presented with the opportunity to do so.
By Leonid Bershidsky
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View contributor. He is a Berlin-based writer, author of three novels and two nonfiction books. ― Ed.