SLOAN | When cities battle free enterprise, a thirsty public suffers

Author: Kelly Sloan - July 3, 2018 - Updated: June 18, 2018

Kelly Sloan

One sunny Memorial Day weekend three young boys aged two, four, and six set up a lemonade stand across the street from their house in northeast Denver’s Stapleton neighborhood, hoping to donate to charity whatever profit they might make from slaking the mid-day thirst of patrons strolling by to attend a nearby outdoor arts festival.

Unfortunately, this iconic scene of summertime in America was bulldozed by one more emblematic of the nation in which we live today.

This children’s lemonade stand, you see, ran afoul of the law, lacking the $100-a-day vending permit which the city requires, along with associated financial, health, and labor regulations designed to protect society from unauthorized lemon, water, and sugar mixtures.

Police were forced to shut down this pre-school criminal enterprise upon receiving complaints from vendors at the art festival who were victimized egregiously enough by these young ruffians that they leapt at the chance to employ the full force of government in excising the threat.

Some have criticized the police for shuttering the little operation, but the reality is that once the complaint was made the police were left with little option; their job is to enforce the law, however ludicrous. One can imagine the mood of the officers assigned this odious task, which was more than likely carried out without relish.

Proper judgment can of course be levelled at the ridiculous scoundrels who made the complaint, but even those guttersnipes didn’t create the law they were nevertheless all to happy to use against their single-digit-aged competition.

It certainly makes one pause to wonder how we got to a place where the simple transaction has become so bureaucratically polluted that even a child’s lemonade stand runs up against the administrative state. How long before we are at the point where the neighbor’s kid who wants to earn a few dollars raking leaves or mowing lawns up and down the block will need to conform to OSHA requirements, obtain approvals from the EPA and Labor Department, retain documentation proving the rake was manufactured in a union shop, and report the 20 bucks to the IRS? (Are there already? Seriously, has anyone looked into this?)

Lest you believe the Memorial Day lemonade crackdown was in isolated event, it turns out that such incidents are commonplace enough around the country to warrant a map documenting their occurrence. A libertarian think-tank in Missouri did just that, pinpointing several locations around the country where kid-run concessions were found in transgression of local laws.

The revelation of bureaucratic interference with a six-year-olds roadside lemonade stand understandably ignites a spark of outrage among the most reasonable in our population, but the real problem it describes is not only so much that it happened to a group of youngsters who have barely reached school age, but that the impulse for economic micromanagement by the state has become so widespread.

An illustrative example was provided in Denver this summer, around the same time as the lemonade stand bust. Some company (quickly followed by another) came up with the idea of providing an app-based scooter rental service downtown. The concept was simple – you are in downtown Denver, need to get to someplace several blocks away, and find the thought of walking that distance unappealing. But, happy day, you behold an electric scooter nearby, and happen to have the app which enables you to pay a dollar or two to unlock it and rent it for whatever the length of time required to reach your destination, whereupon you leave it for the next person in need.

Such an example of extravagant laissez faire commerce proved too much for the City of Denver to leave untouched. The City wasted little time in seizing hundreds of the things, fining the companies $150 for each one, with threats of future fines of up to $999.  The city is quoted as saying that developing the regulations needed would take “at least several weeks”. Yes, we need to make sure sidewalks and garage entrances are not blocked, and no one is being run over, but good heavens, how many volumes of regulation are required?

As for our young lemonade bandits, some good news: CountryTime Lemonade has reportedly said it will pay for any permits or fines acquired by young lemonade entrepreneurs around the country; a wonderful gesture on their part, but the question remains unanswered of why such a gesture is necessary in the first place? Has our exuberance for central planning officially suppressed the spirit of free enterprise to even that extent?

Kelly Sloan

Kelly Sloan

Kelly Sloan is a political and public affairs consultant and recovering journalist based in Denver. He is also an energy and environmental policy fellow at Centennial Institute.