There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch—Or It Is Not Enough Without Free Cash?

I have to admit that this story, in the Sydney Morning Herald is one of the best I have ever read.

A stunt by a Chinese tycoon to provide free lunch to 300 homeless people in one of New York’s finest restaurants degenerated into a shambles as word spread that the participants would not be receiving an expected cash handout.

The first simmerings of discontent emerged in Central Park’s Loeb Boathouse – backdrop for films such as When Harry Met Sally and television shows including Sex and the City – as sesame-encrusted tuna appetisers were being served.

By the time the main course of rump steak was on the tables, the mood had turned thoroughly sour, as news that there was to be no cash giveaway passed around the room.

By the time bow-tied waiters cleared away the berries and creme fraiche, there was a near-mutiny, and burly private security men were forced to prevent some angry diners from storming the podium.

The problem was that Mr. Chen—a man who made a fortune in the recycling business—we are told, had put an advertisement in several newspapers saying that he was inviting the homeless to a great restaurant for a free meal. What I suspect he did not include in the fine print was that he intended to entertain them with a solo performance of “We Are the World” and to grant himself an award, as they watched, for “world’s greatest philanthropist.”

But what he did tell the hundreds of homeless people was that he intended to give each one $300 just for showing up. But when that promise was never fulfilled the guests got angry.

Officials at the New York City Rescue Mission, which Mr Chen had approached to help organise the event, told him they would participate only if the money was donated to their organisation to provide meals for the homeless.

“We work with the homeless every day. Many of them unfortunately have drink and drugs problems, and it just isn’t a good idea to give that sort of cash out to people,” said Michelle Tolson, the mission’s spokeswoman. “Mr Chen agreed that he would donate the $US90,000 to the mission and that is the basis on which we are here today.”

However, that message had not reached many of the recipients of the free meal who were taken by bus to Central Park from a downtown shelter.

While the mission’s spokeswoman may be right that it is not a good idea to give cash to the homeless, it is probably also not a good idea to promise them money and then never deliver on your promise. This might be especially true after you make them attend your self-promotion ceremony.

“We have been duped to come along here under false pretences and now we are just part of a propaganda trick for the rich,” said Harry Brooks, a Vietnam War veteran who tried to reach the stage to voice his complaints. “We don’t need their steak, we need the money so that we can pay for food and clear debts. Now we’re never going to see it. This is a disgrace.”

In the midst of the riot, Mr. Chen seems to have spontaneously changed his mind and handed out at least some cash to his ungrateful guests.

I think there is a lesson here about the welfare state mentality and the attempt to gain popularity by giving away free food and money. I wish “Theodore Dalrymple” had been present to write down his observations on the fracas.

To add to the absurdity, Mr. Chen had recruited help from the local Chinese community and had them all dress up in traditional Chinese communist gear. Meanwhile, there were protestors outside the restaurant accusing Mr. Chen of ties to the communist regime in China.