My youngest daughter, a college agriculture student planning a career in dairy farming, cut her teeth at our mini-ranch outside Sacramento, where she raises Nubians. Those are great milk producers and goat cheese can be tasty, too. One of her early lessons about life in modern America came when locals would ask to buy the milk.
The state forbade such sales, but she heard of some people who adopted a workaround: The buyers would sign a form acknowledging that it was not for human consumption. What they did with the milk after they bought it was their business. My daughter wasn't going down that route, but I'm glad she learned the wisdom of Mr. Bumble from Oliver Twist: "If the law supposes that, the law is a(n) ass."
Americans love to brag about our wonderful freedoms, but sometimes they forget the level of red tape that entangles every commercial transaction. Take a look at the hundreds of hours in training and, often, the thousands of dollars in tuition the state requires to get a permit to perform virtually any occupation you can contemplate. The only thing that saves us are those bureaucratic workarounds—and the lack of sufficient inspectors to monitor everything we do. And black markets, also. If Americans felt compelled to followed every jot and tittle of every regulation, they might not feel so optimistic about the state of our freedoms.
I remember when my wife had to go to traffic school, in the days when one had to sit in a classroom rather than take the "course" online. The CHP officer told the class that every driver always is violating some traffic rule, and that they always could be pulled over for something. Even if that's an overstatement, it is telling. In 2000, I traveled to communist Vietnam for the Register to cover the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, and still recall locals laughing out loud when we told them about some of our state's regulations. That's telling, too.
But maybe the pendulum is about swing back in the other direction. Gov. Jerry Brown has been wrapping up his final legislative session, where he is signing hundreds of bills into law. Almost all of them add new rules and regulations. To his credit, he signed three laws that expand our commercial freedoms, albeit in relatively small ways.
The Homemade Food Operations Act (Assembly Bill 626) allows cooks to publicly sell food that they make in their home kitchen. This encourages small entrepreneurs and helps people earn a legitimate living. Of course, the law comes with many regulations. There are limits on the number of meals sold. Health concerns were overwrought. For heaven's sake, we eat the food made in our own kitchens and our friends' kitchens. And officials are allowed to inspect the facilities if some nosy neighbor complains. But it's a step in the right direction.
Brown also signed the Safe Sidewalk Vending Act (Senate Bill 946), which decriminalizes sidewalk vending. I was appalled at new stories of a police officer shutting down a street vendor and taking his cash. This should stop such nonsense. The new law will also remove past and pending convictions from people who sell the food we like to eat. (No, I don't care about the sellers' immigration status.) Again, the law gives the locals a lot of power to inspect, permit and limit vending carts, but people who sell and buy street tacos should be happy.
Yet I've read comments from people who have complained about the loosened rules because they allow these low-budget operations to compete with existing restaurants. Sorry, but it's not the government's job to assure that brick-and-mortar businesses are free from competition. A main reason for so many restrictions: Politically powerful existing industries often use governments to protect their market share. The other problem is many of our fellow citizens no longer believe in the "live and let live" philosophy.
Brown also signed the Craft Distiller Op-pour-tunity Act (Senate Bill 1164), which lets small distillers produce more of their products and sell it directly to the public, similar to the way breweries and wineries operate. Despite the silly name (Op-pour-tunity), it's a sensible law. But I wonder how we got to the point where one needs a new law to allow such things.
This reminds me of a quotation from author Ayn Rand: "The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren't enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws." I'm not saying it's government's intention to turn us into criminals. But when a law-abiding citizen becomes a scofflaw for selling milk or frutas, the situation has gone too far. Kudos to the governor for rolling it back a bit.
This column was first published by the Orange County Register.
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. He was a Register editorial writer from 1998-2009. Write to him at email@example.com.