Big Victory for Economic Liberty

Amid a financial crisis that has pundits playing the game of who can come up with the most nationalization and re-regulation—and a presidential campaign where neither candidate seems to have much coherent to say about the economy—one bright ray of light shone through.

And it came from San Francisco, no less.

On September 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit delivered a blow against unfair economic regulation in the case of Merrifield v. Lockyer. Pacific Legal Foundation lawyer and Cato adjunct scholar Tim Sandefur argued on behalf of Alan Merrifield, a businessman prevented from building structures to keep out pests by a bizarre licensing regulation. The California law in question required people who do not use pesticides to undergo years of training and take an examination testing their knowledge of chemicals and insects before they can use pest control techniques that involve neither chemicals nor insects.The law only applies to pigeons, rats, and mice, however, so putting spikes on a building to keep seagulls off it does not require a license. But the same activity aimed at deterring pigeons does. Moreover, the record showed that the rule was designed for the sole purpose of protecting people who have licenses from having to compete in the marketplace against upstart businesses like the one operated by Merrifield.

Circuit Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain, writing for the panel majority, succinctly explained the problem with California’s rationale:

The possibility that non-pesticide-using pest controllers might interact with pesticides or will need the skill to suggest pesticide use when it would be more effective is the very rationale that government’s counsel proffered, and we relied upon, in upholding the requirement that Merrifield obtain a license under due process grounds. We cannot simultaneously uphold the licensing requirement under due process based on one rationale and then uphold Merrifield’s exclusion from the exemption based on a completely contradictory rationale. Needless to say, while a government need not provide a perfectly logically solution to regulatory problems, it cannot hope to survive rational basis review by resorting to irrationality.” (Emphasis in original)

That is, “economic protectionism for its own sake, regardless of its relation to the common good, cannot be said to be in the furtherance of a legitimate governmental interest.”

This decision is thus a tremendous blow against the various licensing advantages granted by legislatures to the few at the expense of the many. As Sandefur put it in PLF’s press release, “This is a victory for free enterprise and for the Constitution’s safeguards for entrepreneurship.”

The battle for economic rights remains an uphill struggle, however, because the invalidation of California’s pernicious legislation rested not on the basic right to earn an honest living but on the state’s “irrational singling out of three types of vertebrate pests” to the economic benefit of some exterminators as against others.The case necessarily turned on an “equal protection” violation, instead of constitutional protection of any substantive rights. Without that arbitrary listing of pigeons, rats, and mice, the pesticide/insect requirements would have withstood Merrifield’s challenge. Judge O’Scannlain implicitly recognized that reaching the correct result in this manner was intellectually unsatisfying, but that his hands were tied by the Supreme Court’s 1873 Slaughterhouse Cases (which eviscerated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Privileges or Immunities Clause). So long as the Supreme Court shies from revisiting the twisted logic of that precedent, the Constitution will offer precious little defense against legislation that restricts the ability of individuals to freely exchange goods and services.

Nevertheless, in establishing the legal principle that mere protectionism is not a legitimate state interest, the Merrifield case is a major victory for economic liberty—and the first time the Ninth Circuit has taken up this issue.

Congratulations to Tim and to Pacific Legal!