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:
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/26/world/obamas-speech-to-the-united-nations-general-assembly-text.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1& and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1GZFkwtLBLM
Governor Mitt Romney’s speech to the Clinton Global Initiative (which includes a climate initiative): http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2012/09/25/text-of-romneys-address-to-clinton-global-initiative/ and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=obb_gCh5dQU
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: