Tag: economic liberty

Costa Rica’s Growth Paradox

Can a country enjoy a relatively high growth rate for a quarter of a century and still be unable to reduce its poverty rate? That’s the case of my homeland, Costa Rica, which happens to have a critical presidential election on February 2.

For over 25 years Costa Rica’s growth rate has averaged 4.7 percent a year – one of the highest in Latin America – and yet the country’s poverty rate has been stuck at around 20 percent since 1994. Even worse, Costa Rica is one out of only three Latin American countries where inequality has risen since 2000.

Today, I’ve published a study looking at some of the causes. Even though Costa Rica has undergone a substantial liberalization process since the mid-eighties, the country’s economic model is still in significant ways based on a mercantilist system that is biased in favor of certain sectors of the economy at the expense of the poor. You can read the paper here.

Customers Don’t Need Protection from Low Prices

Some things seem obvious: Puppies are cute. Freedom is good. Paying less for something is better than paying more.

Unless you live in the Tampa area and work for the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission (PTC). The PTC was created, ironically, to protect Tampa’s transportation customers. Apparently, that means protecting those customers from low prices.

This is not one of those stories about unintended consequences or safety regulations that, in the long run, result in higher prices and therefore unsafe practices. The PTC left the agencies that impose those sorts of economics-challenged agencies in its dust. Instead, the PTC actually passed a rule requiring Tampa’s sedan and limo drivers to overcharge their customers. The rule mandates that all drivers must charge at least $50 per ride – no matter how short the ride, and even when the driver is willing to charge much less.

Let me repeat: The PTC is expressly protecting customers from low prices.  What’s next for the PTC?  Protecting us from pillows that are too soft or food that’s too tasty? (Don’t give Michael Bloomberg any ideas.) There are many good things in this world that undoubtedly must be stopped, so the PTC is going to be quite busy.

Casket Case Shows Economic Liberty to Be Alive and Well

Last week, the Institute for Justice scored a resounding victory for the right to earn an honest living in an unlikely case that pitted woodworking monks against the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors.  The New Orleans-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit – where I clerked – ruled in a final, unanimous decision (including one Obama-appointed judge) that Louisiana violated the St. Joseph Abbey monks’ economic liberty when it forbade them from selling the caskets they make to support their religious order.

Significantly, the court ruled that the Constitution doesn’t allow the government to enact laws simply to shield industry cartels from honest competition.  Although IJ was already assured of victory, given that Fifth Circuit had issued a divided preliminary opinion in October, that ruling left open some tricky questions that this latest decision definitively settled.  

Last Wednesday’s ruling makes clear that laws having no purpose but to enrich certain protected interests are unconstitutional, using reasoning that should be a model for courts across the country.  

Louisiana now has 90 days to seek review in the U.S. Supreme Court – which supporters of economic liberty should welcome because IJ’s previous litigation created a split in the federal lower courts that can only be resolved, for the nation as a whole, by the Supreme Court. 

For more on St. Joseph Abbey v. Castille, see IJ’s case page and this Wall Street Journal op-ed by IJ’s Chip Mellor and Jeff Rowes. And if you’re a law student interested in using your legal skills to promote liberty this summer, you should apply to IJ’s epic public interest boot camp (of which I’m a graduate, though in my day there wasn’t any skydiving or aikido).

Food Trucks Unwelcome in Arlington, Virginia

Libertarian arguments about the importance of economic liberty so often fall on deaf ears, but then you come across government abuses in this area that are so ridiculous that maybe even progressives can see the folly.  Here’s an excerpt from an email I just got from the Institute for Justice:

For those of you who follow IJ’s National Street Vending Initiative, you most likely know that cities across the country pass arbitrary and anti-competitive laws that make it practically impossible for food trucks and other vendors to succeed.  An opportunity to fight against one such law has presented itself in Arlington, Virginia.

Arlington County has a law in place that prevents food trucks from operating in one place for more than 60 minutes.  A local food truck named Seoul Food received a notice for violating this rule.  According to the owner of the truck, he informed the police officer that he did move from one parking spot to another within the allotted time.  The police officer still cited Seoul Food, however, because in the officer’s view the truck had not moved “far enough.”  It is important to note that the County Code does not specify any minimum distance a truck must move; it states only that “the vehicle must remain stopped for … no longer than sixty (60) minutes.”  Arlington Code Section 30-9(B).

The penalty for violating Section 30-9 is severe.  The Arlington County Code classifies a violation of the sixty-minute rule as a Class 1 misdemeanor, which is punishable by “confinement in jail for not more than twelve months and a fine of not more than $2,500.”  Thus, Arlington considers selling food to willing customers from a legal parking space to be as serious as  Reckless Driving, DUI, and Assault & Battery.

You can’t make this stuff up!

I followed up with one of IJ’s lawyers, who also noted that every police officer who Seoul Food’s owners interacted with has given them a different distance that the food truck purportedly has to move.  One said they just needed to move to an adjacent spot, while another said they had to go around the block. 

Alas, because the case is in criminal proceedings (!), IJ can’t represent Seoul Food.  Any Virginia-licensed lawyers with experience in criminal defense work who might want to help out pro bono – or media/others seeking more information on the case – please contact Krissy Keys, kkeys -at- ij.org.

Should You Need a License to Hang Curtains?

The latest example of liberty-reducing occupational licensing schemes comes to us from Florida, where a law restricts the practice of interior design to people the state has licensed. Those wishing to pursue this occupation must first undergo an onerous process ostensibly in the name of “public safety.”

In reality, the law serves as an anti-competition measure that protects Florida’s current cohort of interior designers. Our friends at the Institute for Justice have pursued a lawsuit against the law but lost their appeal in the Eleventh Circuit.

Cato has now joined the Pacific Legal Foundation on an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to review that ruling. The lower court got it wrong not just with respect to the right to earn a living, however, but also on First Amendment grounds.

That is, interior design, as a form of artistic expression, is historically protected by the First Amendment. Indeed, interior designers are measured primarily on the value of their aesthetic expression, not for any technical knowledge or expertise. This type of artistry is a matter of taste, and the designer and client usually arrive at the end result through collaboration and according to personal preferences. Thus, the designer-client relationship has little in common with traditionally regulated professions such as medicine, law and finance, where bad advice can have real and far-reaching consequences—but even then, the Supreme Court has emphasized the First Amendment implications of placing “prior restraints” on expression through burdensome licensing schemes.

Instead of following that precedent, however, the circuit court carved out a constitutionally unprotected exception for “direct personalized speech with clients.” Florida’s “public safety” justification is similarly weak, given that the state has presented no evidence of any bona fide concerns that substantiate a burdensome licensing scheme that includes six years of higher education and a painstaking exam—instead relying on cursory allegations that, for example, licensed designers are more adept at ensuring that fixture placements do not violate building codes.

Finally, the Eleventh Circuit’s ruling disregarded the infinite array of auxiliary occupations the Florida law subjects to possible criminal sanctions: wedding planners, branding consultants, sellers of retail display racks, retail business consultants, corporate art consultants, and even theater-set designers could all get swept in. The state has already taken enforcement actions against a wide spectrum of people who are not interior designers, including office furniture dealers, restaurant equipment suppliers, flooring companies, wall covering companies, fabric vendors, builders, real estate developers, remodelers, accessories retailers, antique dealers, drafting services, lighting companies, kitchen designers, workrooms, carpet companies, art dealers, stagers, yacht designers, and even a florist. This dragnet effect also suggests that the law is too broad to survive constitutional scrutiny.

The Court will likely decide by the end of the year (or early 2012) whether to take this case of Locke v. Shore.

Monks Successfully Defend Their Right to Earn an Honest Living

Last week, a federal court in Louisiana ruled that a state law prohibiting sales of caskets by non-licensed merchants was unconstitutional.  A monastery that has made caskets for over a century sued the state to protect their modest casket business. It should come as no surprise that our friends at the Institute for Justice were leading the charge against the law:

Under Louisiana law, it was a crime for anyone but a government-licensed funeral director to sell “funeral merchandise,” which includes caskets.  To sell caskets legally, the monks would have had to abandon their calling for one full year to apprentice at a licensed funeral home and convert their monastery into a “funeral establishment” by, among other things, installing equipment for embalming.

The Honorable Stanwood Duval of U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana ruled, “Simply put, there is nothing in the licensing procedures that bestows any benefit to the public in the context of the retail sale of caskets.  The license has no bearing on the manufacturing and sale of coffins.  It appears that the sole reason for these laws is the economic protection of the funeral industry which reason the Court has previously found not to be a valid government interest standing alone to provide a constitutionally valid reason for these provisions.”

Thus, even though merely economic liberty was at issue and therefore courts need apply only “rational basis” scrutiny to the regulation at issue, this regulation fails for being completely beyond any conceivable rational basis. And indeed, like so many regulations, this one was nothing more nor less than a barrier to entry for small businesses. Established funeral directors had used the power of the government to illegally control the market, eliminating competition and artificially driving up the prices of caskets. Not only was the funeral-director cartel denying the monks their right t earn an honest living, but they were taking advantage of the people they serve (ultimately, everyone in Louisiana) by extracting ill-gotten profit – often at the time of their customers’ greatest sorrow.

You can read the full opinion here and watch a video that tells the monastery’s story below. Congratulations to the monks of St. Joseph Abbey and the great attorneys at IJ!

We Aren’t Exaggerating When We Rail Against Threats to Economic Liberty

Oregon officials told a 7-year-old with a lemonade stand that she needed to obtain a temporary restaurant license or incur a fine.

I’m rendered speechless, but Josh Blackman exploits the “teaching moment”:

If you are generally opposed to any notion of the right to pursue an honest living, ask yourself, why does it bother you so much that this little girl cannot sell lemonade. Then, ask yourself what you think about other regulations that stifle the entrepreneur. This story does not tug on our heart strings simply because she is adorably selling lemonade for 50 cents a cup (suggested price) at a fair. It tugs on our heart strings because the state is unnecessarily clamping down on this little girl’s ability to make some money.

More from Tim Sandefur.