When high school seniors Matt Molinari and Eric Schnepf set out to flier their home town of Bridgewater, New Jersey, they didn’t think of themselves as scofflaws. They thought they were offering a valuable service — shoveling snow from sidewalks and driveways — to likely customers. Then police showed up and told them about the town’s ordinance against solicitation.
The ordinance doesn’t actually outlaw solicitation, of course. It just requires entrepreneurs like Molinari and Schnepf to pay bribes … er, “license fees” … to city bureaucrats before sallying forth in search of business.
These stories are perennial favorites. In winter, it’s teens shoveling sidewalks. In summer, it’s those same teens mowing lawns or their pre-teen siblings setting up unlicensed lemonade stands or selling cookies to support their scout troops.
Usually readers are inclined to side with the young businesspeople, and rightly so. Most of us grew up in an America that encouraged that kind of initiative, in a time before local politicians got it into their heads that they need to regulate, well, pretty much everything.
As a pre-teen in the 1970s, I received a small allowance for doing household chores. At 12, I asked for a raise. My father refused. In fact, he said, the allowance was ending. However, he figured that since we had a lawn mower sitting around anyway, I could use it to make my own money (in return for mowing OUR yard for free, of course).
That summer, I earned more money per week than I’d made per month from the old allowance. I felt positively rich. I spent every summer after making money that way, every fall raking leaves, every winter shoveling sidewalks, until I got my first “real” job at 16. The kid who tries that today will likely get shut down early on.
The continuing trend toward over-regulation by local governments harms both young go-getters and their customers.
Remember, most small towns require lawns to be kept trim, leaves to be raked, driveways and walks to be cleared of ice. Every year a few older Americans die of heart attacks doing those jobs. And every year, more towns make it more difficult to find young workers who’ll do the jobs at reasonable prices.
Local politicians offer several excuses for interfering in these small-time commercial transactions. They’re protecting residents from scam artists. They need to control traffic on their streets and commercial activities increase it. Their governments rely on revenues generated by license fees.
But those really are just excuses. Politics attracts people who like to control others. Established businesses bankroll local campaigns, then lobby for rules that outlaw their competitors, including teenagers who do more work for less money.
Fortunately, local government is more vulnerable to voter dissatisfaction than state and federal government. A few votes really can make a difference. Tired of politicians turning your town into a miniature Pyongyang? Run for local office yourself! Or at least cast your votes carefully. Hint: Look for the candidates who call themselves “libertarians.”
Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.
- “Local regulations can kill jobs” by Thomas L. Knapp, Suncost News [Florida], 02/27/15