The Right to Earn a Living

Early last year, Julie Crowe sued the city of Bloomington IL. She had not been hit by a bus. She was not injured by stepping in a manhole cover. She was not harassed by a loathsome jerk on the job. She sued for the right to earn a living.

Julie perceived a problem and recognized an opportunity to solve it. Young women wanting a safe ride home after visiting bars in town often had to ride “party buses,” which had the virtue of a sober driver but the hazard of getting groped or puked on. Julie had driven a van for hire before and her customers loved her, especially the young women who felt like Julie made sure they got home safely.

The city hearing on Julie’s application to start her own 15-person van service was called an “insurmountable obstacle” by Jacob Huebert, her attorney. The application was denied by the city manager then appealed to the city council, which also denied it. Julie filed suit and was represented for free by the Liberty Justice Center. This was their first case, and a good one it was.

Bureaucrat

Judge Rebecca Foley of the McClean County Circuit Court, who decided the case, agreed that Julie’s due process rights had been violated. In short, she found that the city was arbitrary in its decision and had afforded her no proper chance to defend her application. In the words of Julie’s attorney:

The judge struck down the law because your right to earn a living shouldn’t depend on a government official’s personal preference…This decision says that if the government is going to issue licenses for starting a business, the standards it applies must be clear, objective and fair. –Media Alert, Liberty Justice Center

The impact of this decision may be profound. Judge Foley struck at the heart of a real problem–governmental power cannot be wielded capriciously and arbitrarily. While die-hard libertarians may object that government should not regulate business at all, this decision sets a higher standard of transparency and accountability–surely a step forward for lovers of freedom. If used as a precedent, it will force other cities and municipalities to stop protecting established businesses just because they don’t want competition.

The larger implication is that at least one judge in the United States recognizes that a person may not be denied the right to make a living because of the political pull of competitors. In Illinois, 300 hours of training are required to…braid hair (down from 1500 a few years ago). In order to massage someone, expect 500 hours of training. Want to cut hair? 1500 hours.

Please don’t try to tell me that the public is in danger from a bad haircut or a less-than-heavenly hour on the massage table. These laws are designed to extract the same economic rents that the big guys harvest by getting in bed with politicians. Don’t want to see more competitors enter your market? Tell your representative about how special you are and how you need to be protected because you can clip hair or rub a muscle instead of proving it to everyone in the marketplace.

In addition to delivering a much-needed dress-down to city bureaucrats, Julie’s case did the poor a great favor by raising an important question. In a world where people find it difficult to live on the wages they can earn through a job, why do we make it so hard for them to start their own businesses? Wouldn’t it make more sense to allow people to do pretty much whatever they want, short of genuinely endangering others, say, with a fireworks factory underneath a daycare center?

Don’t expect the city of Bloomington or any other city to go down without a fight. Government officials are loathe to give up power, no matter what the context. Let us be thankful that Julie has forced them to explain themselves. It may not be the final solution, but it’s a heck of a start.

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About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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