Commentary

Uncommon Carriers

“Behold the turtle: He makes progress only when he sticks his neck out.” Hector Ricketts knows about the risks that often accompany progress. But he along with an enterprising band of capitalists are by nature risk-takers with little money but plenty of guts and a passionate desire to make a better life for themselves and their families. This past week I rode in Hector’s vans through the streets of Queens; I talked to the drivers, interviewed the passengers, and rediscovered firsthand why America, at its finest, can be a land of limitless opportunity.

When I started a financial services company more than three decades ago, I encountered some of the same obstacles that all new businesses must overcome if they are to succeed. With luck and effort my company grew from three employees to hundreds of employees, from one client to thousands, and from a single office in my parents’ living room to multiple offices across the nation and abroad. But when I look back, I’m astonished at how few hardships I faced compared with the ordeal confronting Hector Ricketts. I had no city council to appease, no state-conferred monopoly to dislodge, no bare-knuckled political battles to win if I wanted to operate, no labor unions dedicated to putting me out of business, no operating restrictions that made it impossible to compete.

The essential task I shared with Queens Van Plans was to build a client base eager to purchase the service I offered. But while my clients were sophisticated investors with lots of capital, Hector’s clients are working class immigrants suffering the daily privations of city life. One rider, an elderly man, asked and received change for a ten dollar bill to pay his dollar fare (the buses don’t make change). A second rider, a mom returning early from school with a sick child, asked to be let off close to her home (you don’t ask the buses; they tell you where to get off). There were others: all happy to be on clean, safe vans; all thrilled to save fifty cents each trip; all would have been amazed if they knew the lengths to which their government was willing to go in order to shut down their indispensable transportation.


If America is to remain a free and vital society, a nation of unbounded potential, we cannot drown our best and boldest in a swamp of nonsensical, destructive regulations.


Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Businessmen like Hector Ricketts rely on intelligence, competence, and hard work to satisfy customers and employees. The politically powerful, and their minions on the city council, depend on duplicity buttressed by money and muscle. Let the city council ride the vans in Queens. Let them experience, like I did, how ambitious, responsible, tireless entrepreneurs – with almost no material resources – routinely pursue their chosen occupation, without public assistance, to create their own prosperity.

Today’s corporate giants were yesterday’s small businesses. They overcame challenges, served their customers, produced jobs, paid taxes, and earned a living for their owners. Just as surely, tomorrow’s commercial leaders will come from the ranks of today’s startups. If America is to remain a free and vital society, a nation of unbounded potential, we cannot drown our best and boldest in a swamp of nonsensical, destructive regulations.

Teddy Roosevelt reminded us that our country is built on the man “who knows the great enthusiasms and great devotions and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who, at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.” Hector Ricketts is such a man. He and his co-workers deserve their fair chance to know victory. If they are denied, we each surrender a piece of our liberty. We may be able to persevere when politicians take away our money. But, ultimately, we can not survive if they take away our dreams.

Robert A. Levy is a senior fellow in constitutional studies at the Cato Institute.