This Fourth of July, Katy Khaos and I went down to Philadelphia to speak to people about freedom and America. Two of the people we spoke to were selling water and Gatorade. When we were done our interview, the police chased them away since they did not have the proper permits to be vending beverages despite being in a public space. Unfortunately, we had just turned off our camera when this occurred.
It just so happened that a short time later, Julie Borowski posted a video mocking the new movie The Purge: Anarchy. I parodied her parody as an opportunity to talk about the two men Katy and I encountered. And then Julie was awesome enough to post my video on her Facebook page and did so by parodying my parody of her parody. It was like putting two mirrors face to face.
Someone left a comment on the post that I would like to address. My video was titled “My Transient Vendor Horror Story,” and the commenter was actually someone whose profession is a transient vendor. He didn’t seem to like that some people tried to avoid all of the steps he had to take to be “legal.”
HA…as a professional ‘transient vendor’ (seriously, this is what I do for a full time living), these two guys to me are opportunists who are paying no rent/fees for the ground they are standing on to conduct a business activity while I maintain event liability insurance, vehicle insurance, pay the approriate fees to the organizers of the event, maintain a business license, collect sales taxes for the city/county/state which pays for grounds maintenance, security, garbage disposal, entertainment, etc, etc, etc, etc., and if I was a food vendor, I would also have to pass a health dept screening to hopefully ensure I don’t kill anyone.
THAT SAID, there is a BIG difference between what they do and I do, I have paid my dues, pay my dues, and have earned the right to ‘play with the big boys’. These little boys might be better off standing in their front yard with a cardboard sign, a card table. and baking in the sun without a tent. What I always say is that there is a time and a place for everything. These kids are out of place. Come see me on the river in downtown Dayton this weekend, in Columbus/Dublin the weekend after, and then I’m off for Wisconsin.
He talks a lot about fees he has to pay and licenses that he is required to acquire in order to “earn the right” to be a vendor. Most of these appear to be ordered from the government—if he were working at a private event on private property, then any fees and permissions required by the private entity that he would need to set up shop would be justified. Given the situation of the Fourth of July celebration in Philadelphia, this was not the case.
Wawa, a private business, was the sponsor of the event, but the event was in a public space. What the city of Philadelphia did was create a monopoly situation for Wawa and the vendors chosen to be given permission to be at the event, protecting their interests at the expense of anyone else who wanted to sell their products (and purchase them).
So the question to ask is this: does the government have the authority to impose such rules on people who want to sell goods or services on the street (or anywhere for that matter)? And do they have the authority to chase people away who do not abide by these rules (and use force if necessary)? To answer this, consider a situation where none of these rules exist. Would it be wrong for someone to set up on the side of the road and sell water to people? Of course it would not. People only consider those actions to be wrong because some assumed authority is saying that it is not allowed. The only basis for the activity being wrong is that someone said it is wrong. Surely, there needs to be more in judging the rightness or wrongness of an action.
We can all agree that murder is wrong, but we don’t all agree with that because I say so. It would still be wrong if I said it was alright. Murder is wrong because someone’s life it taken away without their permission—it deprives them of their right to self-ownership.
But what about making sure that the vendors are not defrauding people or poisoning their food and drink? First of all, there is no guarantee that even a vendor that goes through the “proper” licensing still wouldn’t engage in such bad behavior. If you’re concerned about their health standards or the quality of what they’re selling, then simply do not purchase anything from them. It really is that simple. And if you think they’re taking factory-sealed water bottles, adding poison to them, and then somehow resealing them in a way that you couldn’t tell they were tampered with, then I’m shocked that you’re even walking around outside given the level of paranoia you’re exhibiting.
The other issue is the extraction of fees and taxes that are used to pay for certain services that are necessary to maintain the event. These include sanitation, security, maintenance, etc. As I mentioned previously, if such an event is held on private property, the owners would be absolutely justified to negotiate with vendors that they give payments to them as part of their agreement. Given that we are talking about a public space, however, no one has the authority to tell someone else that they are not allowed to be there provided that they are not committing some sort of actual rights violation. “I prefer that they are not there” and “They should pay their fair share” are not included as one of those reasons.
Is it then fair that some people, like the professional vendor who commented, have to go through all of that trouble to be “legal” while some others are able to slip by and avoid it?
In a word, the answer is no.
But it is not the unlicensed vendor who is creating the unfair situation. The unfairness comes from the state and its agents who are enforcing rules on people without the legitimate authority to do so. “I paid my dues, so should everyone else” is not the right attitude to have. The better attitude to have is “Why do I even have to pay ‘my dues?’”
Let’s look at this a little differently. Say your bike gets stolen and your neighbor’s bike does not get stolen. Is this an unfair situation? Of course it is, but is the unfairness because your neighbor’s bike wasn’t stolen? Is justice served when the thief steals your neighbor’s bike too? No, the unfairness (or injustice) that has occurred is that your bike was stolen. The same applies to the licensing and fees required of vendors by the state.
Much of the trouble of all of this comes from the vast number of people who accept that political authority is legitimate and that they have the duty to abide by their demands even when not doing so would not result in any ethical norms being broken. So the next time you are confronted with a law, ask yourself this: Am I following this law only because it’s the law or am I bound to some ethical duty that exists regardless of the law?