A Bloomington, Ill., van service would not seem to have much to do with a Washington-area abortion clinic. But their similar problems share a common source.
Julie Crowe wanted to drive a van for hire. It didn't seem like too much to ask. She figured the small business could serve a niche: Late at night some women might feel more comfortable calling a fellow female for a ride than a strange man. Bar owners in downtown Bloomington signed a petition supporting Crowe's idea. But when she asked city officials for a permit, they said no.
Three years ago, Bloomington amended its rules governing vehicles for hire. Anyone who wanted to start a taxi or similar service, or expand an existing one, first had to get a "certificate of convenience" – basically, a permission slip from the government. The ordinance said such permission slips could be granted only if the city manager decided additional taxi service was "desirable" and "in the public interest." Precisely what those words meant was left up to the discretion of the city manager.
Whenever someone applied for a certificate, other taxi companies got to chime in on the merits of the proposal. Not surprisingly, Bloomington's vehicle-for-hire businesses thought this was a great idea: The amended ordinance all but gave them veto power over the competition.
So when Crowe approached the city, the existing operators claimed – surprise! – there simply wasn't enough room in the town for even one small taxi company more.
Crowe sued. Last week, in a rare victory for economic liberty, Illinois Circuit Judge Rebecca Foley issued a summary judgment in Crowe's favor. The city had denied Crowe's due-process rights through a ludicrously arbitrary application and appeals process, the judge found.
Moreover, the Bloomington ordinance was not "rationally related to the public's health, safety, or welfare and instead serves only to protect established business from competition. . . . The City's stated purpose for the [certificate requirement] is to: 1) prevent saturation of the market in order to 'ensure the economic survival' of existing [vehicle-for-hire] operators; and 2) establish a public hearing process in which the 'main issue is whether the market will support a new company.'"
Put another way, the purpose of the ordinance was to (1) stymie competition and (2) substitute the judgment of government bureaucrats for the judgment of consumers.
Imagine if a similar rule had been in effect regarding, say, personal computing in the 1980s. Companies such as IBM and Commodore "saturated" the market then, and probably would have argued that upstarts such as Apple were simply not "desirable."
This is troubling not just for the practical reason that it stifles innovation. It is troubling on an ethical plane as well. Ponder the almost exospheric level of arrogance required to sit in judgment of, and then overrule, the business and consumer choices of others.
But people also have non-economic reasons for wanting to prevent the launch of a new businesss, or to shut down an existing one. Take the saga of the NOVA Women's Healthcare clinic in the city of Fairfax. Long a target of protesters because of the many abortions it performed, NOVA has been shut down by a combination of state and local regulation.
Earlier this year Virginia imposed stringent new building regulations on abortion clinics that require them to meet hospital-like standards for things such as hall widths. Pro-life activists, who pushed the measure, pretended in public that they were concerned about health and safety, but everyone knew their true aim was to make abortion unavailable.
The NOVA clinic sought out new space in another building. Permission denied: the parking was insufficient, said local panjandrums. For good measure, the Fairfax City Council amended its zoning ordinance to require a special-use permit for medical facilities. The measure covered abortion clinics but exempted doctor's or dentist's offices. (Subtle!)
Unable to withstand the sustained assault, the NOVA clinic has closed its doors. Operation Rescue's Troy Newman told The Washington Post the shutdown is a huge victory in a larger campaign: "Our focus has always been on the local level. In the last 15 years, we've closed 71 percent of all the abortion clinics in the nation."
Progressives find this outrageous. The other day the Post unloaded an editorial about the NOVA clinic condemning "Virginia Lawmakers' False War on Abortion." But in other areas the newspaper, like many progressives, has no objection at all to expressing moral disapprobation through government regulation.
For instance, the Post has denounced payday lenders as "parasites" that "prey on vulnerable Virginians" by "offering quickie loans at usurious interest rates." Critics of payday loans misleadingly exaggerate those rates, but that's a story for another time. The point is that the Post has called on Virginia legislators to reassess their decision to let payday lenders operate at all.
Democratic candidate for governor Terry McAuliffe has been even more emphatic: Four years ago, he vowed to "establish a total ban on payday lending." He's being more circumspect this time around, probably because of campaign contributions from the payday industry. But campaign representatives say his official policy has not changed: Storefront lending should be verboten because, in his view, it is neither desirable nor in the public interest.
If McAuliffe doesn't win the election in November, perhaps he should run for office in Bloomington. He would fit right in.