The Right to Buy and Sell

The first presidential debate of 2012, on October 3, offered up two very different views on the role of government in people’s lives.

While the debate was fascinating to watch, I recall similar views  expressed by President Obama and Governor Romney in speeches they each gave in New York City on the same day, September 25. 

In their September speeches, each man invoked the memory of the Tunisian street vendor who set himself aflame on December 17, 2010.

Mohamed Bouazizi, 26, killed himself in protest of a government that he saw as oppressive. It required him to have a permit to sell his wares — fruit and vegetables — a living he’d engaged in since he was ten. His income helped support him, his siblings, widowed mother and an uncle. While pushing his food cart, Mr. Bouazizi dreamed of one day owning a food truck.

In their September speeches in New York, Presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney referred, respectively, to “oppressive corruption” and to “corrupt government officials” in Tunisia.

Faida Hamdi, the civilian municipal employee, tasked with chasing away illegal fruit vendors in Tunisia, sees things differently.

She claims she had never spoken to Mr. Bouazizi before that fateful day. “I had been tolerating his illegal work for a long time,” she said, “but that week I had an order from the ministry to confiscate any merchandise sold from any illegal vendor from that particular place. So I was doing my job. When I confronted him he said, ‘why are you targeting me? If I paid you bribes, you wouldn’t target me.’”

Ms. Hamdi said she doesn’t take bribes but admitted she’d confiscated the expensive ($200) electronic scale Mr. Bouazizi used to weigh fruit. She emphatically denied that she ever slapped him. “He pushed me,” she said, “and actually wounded me. So I screamed.”

The hopelessness Mohammed Bouazizi experienced at the loss of his scale was overwhelming. He sought redress at the Governor’s office which refused to see him.

Within an hour of the altercation with Ms. Hamdi, Mr. Bouazizi secured gasoline, doused himself and set himself ablaze outside the municipal building. The act resonated with hundreds of thousands of others who took to the streets in protest, ushering in the Arab Spring, a political revolution.

Permits and Red Tape in the U.S.

For the two presidential candidates to invoke the name of a Tunisian food cart vendor in New York City is ironic. New York City’s food truck permit process is so broken that permits, representing an investment of $200 in cash and countless hours navigating red tape and complying with various design requirements, are resold on the black market for $15,000 each. On the other side of the country, Los Angeles County’s 88 cities each requires vendors to acquire, from separate agencies, both business and health permits. All this permitting costs time and money, eliminates thousands who would like to make a living peddling food, increases costs for consumers and renders mobile vendors a lot less mobile, restricting their client base.

So, yes, US street vendors face lots of government restrictions and permitting requirements in order to sell their wares. Even those who want to sell to neighbors from their own kitchens  — “cottage cooks,” as the government calls them — face permitting requirements and lots of regulation.

Supposedly it’s all necessary to secure the health and safety of customers. All this regulation relies on a large bureaucracy and enforcement arm, probably very similar to what is found in Tunisia. In fact, it’s probably more entrenched and much larger than that found in Tunisia, and costs far more. The vast majority of people who attempt to navigate the process fail to ever make their way through it.

Is it all necessary to protect the public? Clearly a private insurance policy could address health issues. No insurance, buy at your own risk. Insurance companies would base their rules on real risk as reflected by real world data on payouts to injured parties. Reduce the risk, reduce the premium. That’s a built-in financial incentive –  beyond a desire for repeat customers – to not poison one’s client base.

The week Obama and Romney were giving speeches in New York, California joined 30 other states in lifting some of the onerous restrictions on those who want to sell what they produce in their own kitchens. The government will severely limit how much money such “cottage cooks” can make but at least they’ll be able to engage in selling jams and jellies produced in their own kitchens.

It’s not an Arab Spring but it’s clearly a step in the right direction toward a bit more freedom.

Mr. Bouazizi’s “Taking”

As for the confiscation of Mr. Bouazizi’s expensive scale, Western rancher Wayne Hage experienced a “takings” of his personal property very similar to the one that triggered Mr. Bouazizi to kill himself. Government bureaucrats confiscated — and sold — Wayne’s cattle. Without his cattle, Wayne Hage lost his ability to make a living. Without his cattle, Wayne would lose his water rights. Without his water rights, Wayne would lose his ranch.

But Wayne didn’t set himself aflame in protest. Instead he turned to the U.S. courts for justice. His case, originally filed in 1991, has outlived Wayne’s wife, his second wife (Idaho Congresswoman Helen Chenoweth) and Wayne Hage himself. The case is carried on by Wayne’s children and grandchildren and financed by $25 donations contributed by people who believe the government does not have the right to confiscate property without just compensation. It’s in the Constitution. But clearly redress should not take several lifetimes when one goes up against the federal government.

The Wayne Hage case makes exactly the same point made so dramatically by Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia.

One of Mohamed’s brothers, Salem, was asked what Mohamed might have hoped his sacrifice would bring to the Arab world. Salem did not hesitate: “That the poor also have the right to buy and sell.”

The Right To Buy and Sell

The right to buy and sell. It’s a simple concept. Free enterprise. Free trade. The right to produce something and sell it freely to a willing buyer.

The first presidential debate of 2012 was all about how much government should interfere in your life as you attempt to do business, whether you are a doctor or lawyer; a New York banker or street vendor, or even a California cottage cook. The points were relevant to each of us. 

The right to buy and sell — clearly, a concept important enough to protest about, sue on, fight over, even die for.

So, bless you, Wayne Hage. Bless you, Mohamed Bouazizi. May you rest in peace in heavenly palaces forever.


Links to the two speeches in New York, September 25, 2012:

President Obama’s speech to the UN General Assembly: and

Governor Mitt Romney’s speech to the Clinton Global Initiative (which includes a climate initiative): and

We thank Ron Arnold for his positive review of this commentary.

For more on rancher Wayne Hage’s story, see Ron Arnold’s series of articles: and our comments on this important case.

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