Friday, June 5, 2009

It's a privilege to do business with you

From San Francisco comes the sad story of Larry Moore, a homeless man who got it together, started a shoeshine business and saved enough cash to rent an apartment -- until a city official slapped him with a bill for hundreds of dollars to pay for a sidewalk vendor permit. You see, in Mr. Moore's city, as in most places these days, offering goods and services for which people are willing to pay requires government permission. Somehow, the most fundamental of rights -- the right to make a living -- has been reduced to a privilege.

Some places make it explicit. In Pennsylvania, for example, if you want to do things for people in return for voluntarily given money, or sell goods to eager buyers, you have to pay a tax "for the Privilege of doing business." In some towns, it's considered a privilege to stick your toe across the border, and pretty much any presence will subject you to the eager attention of local officials.

San Francisco isn't as honest in its terminology, but the city does seem to require a license or permit for anything (and I mean anything (PDF)) that involves a few coins moving from one hand to the next. In Larry Moore's case, the city demanded $491 so he could continue to shine shoes with official blessing.

And if he couldn't come up with the tariff? Back to panhandling and living in shelters, I guess. Surviving on charity doesn't require permission -- it's only supporting yourself that must be licensed. As the San Francisco Chronicle puts it:

Along Market Street, Moore's supporters are indignant. Nothing happens when mentally ill men wander the street talking to themselves and drunkards pee in the alleys. Yet Moore creates a little business out of thin air, builds up a client base, and the city takes nearly every penny he's earned.

Some people think this is the way it should be. Even a business governance handbook written by a corporate CEO insists "business is a privilege, not a right -- the privilege to run a business in a society for the benefit of present and future generations." The Supreme Court of Missouri once wrote, with regard to pawnprokers:

No person has the right to follow such occupation within the limits of said city without first obtaining a license from its authorities for that purpose, which may be granted or withheld at pleasure. The business is a privilege, not a right ...

Working to make a living is a privilege to be dispensed by bureaucrats "at pleasure" (and at no small charge)? If that's the case, how free can we ever really be?

I write often about free speech, search and seizure, domestic relationships and the general right we all have to be left alone to conduct our lives, use our bodies and love our friends and family as we see fit, so long as we harm nobody else.

But it's difficult to fully enjoy those rights, no matter how well protected, if there isn't equivalent regard for the fundamental right to make a living. After all, if a license to do business can be withheld "at pleasure," displeasing officials with the way you conduct your life can have dire consequences for the ability to pay bills and put food on the table.

The idea of a right to go about your life unmolested and without asking permission isn't some novelty. It was only a bit over a century ago that the U.S. Supreme Court said:

The individual may stand upon his constitutional rights as a citizen. He is entitled to carry on his private business in his own way. His power to contract is unlimited. He owes no duty to the state or to his neighbors to divulge his business, or to open his doors to an investigation, so far as it may tend to criminate him. He owes no such duty to the state, since he receives nothing therefrom, beyond the protection of his life and property. His rights are such as existed by the law of the land long antecedent to the organization of the state, and can only be taken from him by due process of law, and in accordance with the Constitution. Among his rights are a refusal to incriminate himself, and the immunity of himself and his property from arrest or seizure except under a warrant of the law. He owes nothing to the public so long as he does not trespass upon their rights.

That point of view is considered a little antiquated today, but without it, aren't we all just getting from one meal to the next dependent on the whim of an army of politicians and bureaucrats?

Larry Moore was lucky. His customers came through to make sure that there was enough money for both the permit fee and the rent payment (and to help him pay the city its money, since the process is byzantine in its complexity).

But all of us, potentially, are just as vulnerable as a man trying to make his way off the street.

Sort of apropo to all of the above, here's Doug Stanhope, sounding off on freedom -- and licensing (thanks to Mike Frink for the heads-up).



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