Criminalizing business: part II

Thomas Sowell
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Posted: Apr 23, 2004 12:00 AM

 Can you imagine being charged with murder for the death of someone you didn't even know was dead, when you were not even around when it happened? Only in California -- and only if you are in business.

 In a state where hardened criminals are coddled, and sometimes lionized, a California dairy farmer named Patrick Faria and his herdsman were charged with murder in the accidental death of two dairy employees who fell into a sewage pit and drowned while Mr. Faria was away. The rationale is that the farm was not in compliance with the innumerable safety rules that bureaucrats can dream up, even if nobody can keep track of all these rules.

 Whether any of these rules would have saved these men's lives is a question that can get lost in the shuffle. But not being in compliance may enable the prosecution to turn these deaths into the general manager's personal responsibility, even though Faria didn't know that the two employees were going to go down into the sewage pit to unclog it, much less that the precautions they took would turn out to be inadequate.

 By trial time the murder charge had been reduced to involuntary manslaughter. Even if this shaky legalistic reasoning does not stand up in court, felony charges hanging over these men can put pressure on them to plead guilty to some lesser charges, so that the prosecution can put this case in the "win" column.

 California is the only state that has ever brought a murder charge against an employer in an accidental death. It is one of many dubious distinctions that California has when it comes to anti-business laws and policies.

 California's workmen's compensation costs also lead the nation. And it leads businesses right out of state. Yet some people wonder why businesses are leaving California, taking their jobs and their taxes with them.

 A recent column in the San Francisco Chronicle vividly illustrates the anti-business mindset of many Californians. It dealt with the fact that Wal-Mart lost a referendum to allow the retailer to put a store in Inglewood, California.

 According to the Chronicle columnist, Wal-Mart was "trying to bully its way into another targeted community." Putting an issue to a vote is called "bullying" when business does it, and the community where it wants to locate is called a "target."

 Among the other rhetorical flourishes of this indictment is that Wal-Mart tries to "crush the competition." What does such purple prose amount to? That some people prefer shopping at Wal-Mart rather than in competing stores, so that some of the latter may end up going out of business as a result.

 In all this venting of spleen against Wal-Mart in the Chronicle column, there is no mention of the cynical role of community activists in depriving a low-income community of jobs and taxes. By flexing their muscle against Wal-Mart, Jesse Jackson et al have shown that people who want to locate businesses in minority communities have to get their OK -- and that OK will not come cheap.

 The ability to extort money from big businesses is a major part of Jesse Jackson's operations. Obstruction and name-calling are the weapons and hard cash is the pay-off.

 All this works only because of those who will believe race hustlers and those who will keep up a steady drumbeat of anti-business rhetoric. California has plenty of both, which may be why there are only one-sixth as many Wal-Marts per capita in California as in Oklahoma.

 Yet another example of the anti-business climate in California is a class action lawsuit against the Bank of America and Wells Fargo for charging people for cashing paychecks when those people do not have accounts at these banks.

 California has a law making that illegal. But federal law says otherwise, and this will all have to be sorted out in appellate courts, at the taxpayers' expense.

 Why such a law in the first place? Are there no costs to cashing checks? Do the people who do this work not get paid?

 Costs arbitrarily imposed on business simply do not matter in the California political climate -- not even when those costs include felony charges over accidental deaths.