Government and the little guy

Walter E. Williams

10/18/2000 12:00:00 AM - Walter E. Williams
Government is on the side of the little guy, protecting him from the rich and powerful. That's what many people believe -- after all, that's the sermon preached in our schools and colleges, and parroted by politicians, particularly those of the leftist Democratic persuasion. Let's look at a couple examples, and you decide. Funerals are very costly so the Revs. Nathaniel Craigmiles and Tommy Wilson, two black ministers in Chattanooga, Tenn., started a casket business and sold caskets at modest markups over cost to their parishioners. The typical funeral home mark up on caskets is 200 percent to 300 percent. The Craigmiles and Wilson casket business made money for the church and gave bereaved parishioners lower prices. But last year, Tennessee's Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers closed their business, and threatened them with fines and imprisonment for selling caskets without a funeral director's license. To legally sell caskets, Craigmiles and Wilson would have to spend thousands of dollars attending school to learn how to conduct funerals and prepare a corpse for burial. They simply sold caskets. Fortunately for Craigmiles and Wilson, there's the Washington-based Institute for Justice, the only public interest legal organization that fights for people's right to earn a living. Under the leadership of its director, Chip Mellor, and associate director, Clint Bolick, the Institute for Justice sued the Tennessee Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers, as well as the state's attorney general, charging that the licensing provision constituted a violation of the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Last August, the U.S. District Court for Tennessee's Eastern District ruled that Tennessee's licensing statute was unconstitutional. One doesn't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out the purpose of Tennessee's licensing statute. It's to keep competition out so funeral directors can charge high casket prices, or as Institute for Justice attorneys say, in jest, "Protect the public from low prices." There are hundreds of statutes that stifle competition and allow incumbents to charge higher prices. A taxicab license to own and operate one taxi in New York City has been as high as $160,000. High taxi license prices also exist in other cities. License laws prevent people from hair braiding. There're license laws that prevent people from operating van services or even shining shoes. You might think that the "champions" of the little guy such as the U.S. Department of Justice's Anti-Trust Division, Urban League, NAACP, the Democratic Party and black politicians would be in there fighting for the little guy's right to earn a living. You'd be absolutely wrong. If anything, they are on the side of the powerful vested interests. That's the side on which their political/financial bread is buttered. The Institute for Justice has laid down the gauntlet in its struggle against restrictions on people's right to earn an honest living. It now sponsors a Clinic on Entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago Law School. Pat Lee, the clinic's director and former lawyer for McDonald's Corporation, says the Clinic has a twofold purpose: that of providing fledgling entrepreneurs in poor areas of the city practical skills to deal with licensing restrictions and regulatory bureaucracies, and at the same time give second- and third-year law students practical experience. There's little glamour to the work of the Institute for Justice. Its mission is simply that of protecting people's God-given right to earn an honest living. Little businesses, whether it's braiding hair, shining shoes, owning a taxi, street vending or other kinds of self employment, have always been a route out of poverty. Today, many of those routes are blocked by powerful vested interests. I say three cheers for the Institute for Justice. They deserve at least our moral support in their struggle to promote economic liberty.