Politics & Policy

A Tennis Star Shows Free-Marketers How Not to Advance Their Position

Tennis player Dominic Thiem during the Austrian Pro Series 2020 in Maria Enzersdorf, Mödling, Austria, May 27, 2020 (Alexander Schwarz/Red Bull/Reuters)
The backlash to Dominic Thiem’s recent comments highlights the need to balance compassion and liberty when arguing against entitlement programs.

The ATP and WTA — the men’s and women’s professional-tennis tours, respectively — have been on pause since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic and are not scheduled to return until at least August. While tennis stars such as Novak Djokovic have taken the initiative in creating a relief fund for players harmed by the prolonged absence of prize money, not everyone in the top tier of the sport shares the same willingness to contribute. Dominic Thiem, the Austrian baseliner ranked third in the world, came out early against the fund: “No tennis player is fighting to survive, even those who are much lower-ranked. No tennis player is going to starve. . . . I would rather give money to people or organizations that really need it. . . . I’ve seen players on the [lower tiers of the] tour who don’t 100 percent commit to the sport. Many are quite unprofessional. I don’t see why I should give them money.”

Unsurprisingly, Thiem faced immediate, widespread backlash, as fellow competitors from Nick Kyrgios to Dustin Brown censured his remarks for their alleged short-sightedness and selfishness. Innes Ibbou, a young Algerian tennis player, went so far as to post an impassioned open letter to Thiem detailing her own adversities and rebuking the Austrian for his purported insensitivity toward less-privileged athletes. At least one journalist has even gone so far as to speculate that Thiem may eternally be known as the man who proclaimed, “None of them are going to starve.”

To many readers, an oddly strong parallel might be starting to suggest itself. Someone expressing his disdain for a large-scale welfare program? Arguing that the circumstances of the less fortunate are largely self-inflicted? Playing down the need to take action in their behalf? Asserting that he prefers, merci beaucoup, to spend his money how he pleases? Having his stances met with moral condemnation? It seems as though we are dealing with an Ebenezer Scrooge–type capitalist grouch, not a Central European tennis player.

In all seriousness, though, there is something unsatisfactory about Thiem’s position — a sort of harshness or haughtiness to his language that also infects the Scrooges of the world. So I wonder: How might proponents of fiscal responsibility argue for restriction on the governmental redistribution of wealth without sacrificing their good standing in the public sphere? Is it enough to purport to show that many people are responsible for their own misfortunes?

At first glance, this does, indeed, appear to be enough. The evidence in favor of individual responsibility is compelling: A now-famous 2013 report from the Brookings Institution finds that those poor children who “at least finish high school, get a full-time job and wait until age 21 to get married and have children” are 37 times more likely to join the middle class than to be in poverty as adults. Of course, clearing those bars is easier said than done; harsh family circumstances, limited economic opportunity, and ignorance of the benefit to be gleaned from educational attainment may greatly complicate matters.

But whatever one’s position on the substance of this question, the central charge against free-marketers remains rhetorical: They lack compassion. This accusation has been known to haunt conservatives. Throughout Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, the former governor of Massachusetts was pilloried as a plutocrat who didn’t care about the poor. For that matter, as far back as the 1930s, FDR established compassion for the lower class as the benchmark for economic policy: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” Many conservatives sense the impure pleasure that the Left derives from claiming the “compassion edge” in our never-ending partisan wars. But must conservatives not allow for a kernel of truth in Roosevelt’s words? Does not the Right resemble Ebenezer Scrooge in donning its spectacles, perusing the appropriate graphs and tables, and announcing in a haughty voice that the poor have dug their own graves?

It seems as though the Right has three ways to overcome this problem:

  1. The Thiem Strategy: “Don’t ask me to pay for other people’s problems! After all, they’re responsible for their own misfortunes.” Even when the empirical data backs the assertion that poverty is the result of individual decisions, the Right garners little sympathy with such proclamations. Statistics tend to be no match for emotion; in this context, they succeed mainly in making the Right seem robotic and unfeeling.
  2. Trying to Match the Left on Its Own Turf: “Of course compassion is essential, which is why charitable giving must be at the foundation of society. Each citizen has a duty to aid his fellow man.” This strategy, too, is problematic. If the Right’s answer to the Left’s challenge of compassion amounts to no more than individualized welfare, the battle will be lost quickly, because however much money individuals might raise for charitable causes, the government will be able to raise more.
  3. Combining the Language of Freedom with an Underlying Compassion: “Each citizen has the right, through voluntary interactions in the free market, to secure his livelihood through his own will and by his own merit. The self-propelled advancement of one’s own circumstances is a necessary condition for mental growth and can never be replaced by the opium of governmental assistance. Moreover, it is repressive for citizens to be compelled to give to causes from which they cannot derive utility — this violates one’s right to govern one’s own life and property according to his conscience.”

The third argument is on the firmest ground; rather than combating the Left’s compassion with less-potent compassion or with cold, hard facts, it invokes freedom, a highly appealing concept that resonates with the Left as well as with the Right. Of course, it presupposes a certain moral richness of the citizenry; without a strong social fabric and citizens who are willing to care for one another in their hour of greatest need, a government safety net will be inevitable, and indeed morally necessary. Then again, if people are unwilling to care for their sick neighbors or those starving on the street corner, we have bigger problems on our hands than public-policy disputes.

In short, conservatives would do well to rid their ranks both of dismissive Thiem-ism and of solely altruistic arguments. They’ll make progress only when they have convinced the public of the virtues of small government by way of compassion-infused appeals to liberty.

Imagine that instead of blaming low-ranked players for their circumstances, Thiem had spoken of the fulfillment he’d gained from working his way to the top of his sport, as well as the joy he’d felt at receiving aid from mentors whom he could look in the eye and thank for their help. Imagine that he had read out a list of deserving young prospects whom he intended to support as they navigated through these challenging times. Might not his comments about the general-relief fund have been received in a far more sympathetic light?

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