Brandon Dutcher, of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, threw down a gauntlet today in a column in the Daily Oklahoman — It’s Time To do Something Great! He notes the extraordinary lack of vision among Oklahoma Republicans, who dominate the state, controlling the governor’s office and both houses of the state legislature. He writes –
Our experiment in ordered liberty is at stake. It won’t do for Oklahoma’s political leaders to “play it safe by adjusting the rudder slightly to the right and enjoy the ride until you term out of office,” as my colleague Michael Carnuccio put it. “We live in a day and age when we need leadership — the kind that is strong, bold and transformational.”
I say “hear hear” and let me be the first to throw a proposal out to the conservatives of the State of Oklahoma.
How about a little old fashioned, free enterprise, as a strategy to counter both the hard times facing the nation and our own problems with poverty here at home. There’s a reason why we have so much poverty in Oklahoma. It’s the way our system is designed to work.
You may reply, “you’re making an absurd statement, we have lots of free enterprise,” but that isn’t exactly so. We have lots of highly regulated and restricted enterprise. We’ve organized things so that the marketplace isn’t especially welcoming to some folks and we completely exclude many from participation. I am talking about the ways that the government of the state, the counties, and the cities oppress the poor by making the traditional ways that poor people made a living illegal in many cases, or so highly regulated that you have to have money in order to get started in the first place. The concept of bootstrapping your way into better circumstances is pretty much against the law these days in Oklahoma.
Let us count the ways that this is true.
1. In Oklahoma it is illegal to sell along public right of ways (sidewalks, roads, rest stops on the highways and toll roads, etc.) Where legal, such high prices are charged for licenses and they usually incorporate such bizarre regulatory requirements that they make street vending illegal. If this kind of free enterprise were legalized, we would end up with a non-stop flea market from one end of the state to the other along our freeways and toll roads. Food trucks would be everywhere, offering tasty Oklahoma foods to travelers. It would give people reasons to stop and spend money in Oklahoma and provide ways for Oklahomans to start their own micro-enterprises that could grow, with time and effort, into full-time employment.
2. It’s illegal to practice small scale itinerant trades without “proper licenses” which often have expensive prerequisites so that they function as barriers to market entry rather than protections for the public. These are trades like hair braiding, hair cutting, applying make-up, carpentry, plumbing, etc. The proliferation of coercive credentialing in general raises political barriers to finding and doing work and lowers compensation.
3. In many municipalities it is illegal for people to practice trades out of their houses.
4. City ordinances limit the number of garage sales people can have at their homes and restrict the ability to open a small sales or hospitality operation in a home. This doesn’t show much respect for private property, does it? Shouldn’t conservatives support the rights of homeowners to use and profit from their properties?
5. Laws forbid people from making non-hazardous foods (like jams, pickles, and baked goods) at home and selling them to the public. Many states are passing cottage food industry laws that allow people to make and sell these kinds of foods in their home kitchens.
6. Poor people who own cars can’t drive people around and charge for the service. It would be illegal to use a van to establish a jitney service (a type of transit, common elsewhere, where a van or small bus drives a route that deviates around the route to pick up fares dispatched from a central location). Transportation has serious political barriers to market entry. We have this bizarre idea that only the government can do mass transportation. To prove that, we have enacted so many state and local laws on the subject that yes, in Oklahoma, it is practically illegal to start a private transportation company that drives people around for cash money.
7. It in many cities it is illegal to grow vegetables in your back yard (or your front yard) and sell them from your property.
8. Economic redevelopment programs, using eminent domain, have destroyed entire neighborhoods of poor people, repeatedly forcing people to relocate, paying them cheap prices for their property, and destroying cultural and business resources. This non-market, politicized process has driven up the price of housing, especially at the low end. It takes property from the poor, cheats them by paying cheap, non-market, court-dictated and politicized prices for the property, and then gives that property at low prices to persons with privileged access to politicians. If we want to help the poor, we can start by ending the condemnation of neighborhoods simply because “poor people live there and we don’t like poor people so we will destroy the neighborhood with a political due processed pogrom.”
9. Zoning laws prevent people from adding small apartments (garage, attic, basement, back-yard) that could increase the amount of affordable rental housing.
10. In most areas it would be illegal to put a trailer house in your back yard and allow someone to rent it or to put a trailer house or even a manufactured home on an empty lot. We confine trailer houses to their own legal ghettos.
11. In most areas it is practically impossible to establish a boarding house, which in the past was a traditional place for poor people to live. All of this combines to artificially drive up housing costs and rents — not based on market factors, but instead on politics.
12. Minimum lot sizes, minimum house sizes, minimum setbacks, and much of the rest of the building code, create a non-market situation where it is practically illegal to build new housing for the poor. There is an entire national movement to build “tiny houses” and apartments which is passing Oklahoma City and our other urban areas by because of our byzantine building codes and zoning ordinances that have the (presumably unintentional) impact of segregating the city by economic class.
13. You can’t raise chickens or other small animals in most cities unless you have a large lot. This inhibits economic activity and prevents people from supporting themselves by their own labor.
14. Taxes and fees extracted from older parts of urban areas subsidize upscale development in newer areas of the city. This constantly drains older neighborhoods of revenue important for maintaining infrastructure and providing services. A more just system would require new development, statewide, to pay the full cost of its demands for infrastructure expansion.
15. Figuring out what laws and such that you need to comply with is very difficult for anyone starting a new business. Oklahoma City, for example, has a byzantine bureaucracy whose apparent goal is to make it as difficult and confusing as possible to open a business in Oklahoma City. You can ask three employees in a department a question, and you may get three different answers, each contradicting the other, as to what is required. This statement is based on an actual situation related to me by an Oklahoma City entrepreneur trying to start a business. He said to me, “You would think I was trying to open a meth lab, the way those people treat me downtown. I’m nothing but dirt to them.” The situation is even more complicated if you want to start a food business. Each large urban area needs a one-stop-shopping place for entrepreneurs to find the info they need to get started in their business.
The negative cumulative impacts of these prohibitions and persecutions is to –
- Make people dependent upon government social services,
- Restrict the number of new business started and the number of new jobs created,
- Make the lives of poor people more miserable, risky, and unhealthy,
- Suppress the price of lower-income labor,
- Keep unemployment higher than it needs to be,
- Reduce entrepreneurial activity and thus ensure a continued supply of cheap workers, and
- Increase the number of abortions due to economic distress and psychological despair.
Poverty drives a host of negative consequences for our society, including alcoholism and drug abuse, violence against women and children, family dissolution, abortion, despair, crime, and suicide.
If we want to help the poor, then among other things that need to be done, the government should stop actively persecuting the poor as described herein. It is likely that there will be less need for government programs as people become more able to participate in their own lives by helping themselves by their own efforts.
The huge amount of drug business in low income areas indicates that there is an entrepreneurial streak a hundred miles wide among poor people. Ironically, it is easier and more profitable for poor people to go into the recreational drug business, than it would be for (e.g.) three young people to set up a hot dog stand at a rest stop on a freeway. That would certainly result in a major police and food regulatory bureaucracy response the first day they open for business. These hot dog entrepreneurs would be safer selling crack cocaine on the streets of a low income neighborhood than they would be selling hot dogs at a turnpike rest stop.
That’s a pretty sad commentary on the morality of our present system of laws.
So what’s it to be, Conservatives of Oklahoma?
Do you want to continue the present system of rigged, politicized markets?
Do you want to continue with the laws that oppress the poor and grind their faces into the dust by suppressing wages, increasing rents, promoting political and economic dependency, and discouraging personal and family and community responsibility?
Do I need to remind you of what economists like Ludvig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman et al have to say about the effects of politicized marketplaces on economic prosperity?
So if you want to think big, Conservatives of Oklahoma, my suggestion is to start right here, with the basic rights to work and to create your own job, even if it is a small part-time job with dreams of getting bigger. This could change this state for the better. It’s never the wrong time to do the right thing, and economic freedom for all in this state is the right thing to do and this is the right time.