TANSTAAFL Appears for the First Time in a Court Opinion


From Pizza di Joey, LLC v. Mayor & City Council of Baltimore, decided yesterday by the high court of Maryland, in an opinion by Judge Jonathan Biran:

"There ain't no such thing as a free lunch."
– adage popularized as the acronym "TANSTAAFL" in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein (1966)

I leave it to others to decide whether Heinlein would have approved of the holding, which is,

Nobody disputes that mobile vendors add value to Baltimore City. However, the City acted rationally when it balanced the competing interests of mobile vendors and brick-and-mortar restaurants and enacted the 300-foot rule to further its legitimate interest in promoting the vibrancy of its commercial districts. It follows that the Rule does not deprive mobile vendors of their substantive due process and equal protection rights under [the Maryland Constitution]. The Food Trucks affirmatively waived a vagueness challenge to the 300-foot rule, and the circuit court erred in sua sponte enjoining the City from enforcing the Rule as impermissibly vague. In any event, the 300-foot rule is not void for vagueness.

(I'm not counting here a few opinions in which a party or other business entity was called Tanstaafl: a shooting club, a stock trading company, and a summer camp; I also can't vouch for any opinions, likely state trial court opinions, that might not have made their way onto Westlaw.)

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  1. We have a wire company here in Illinois called TANSTAAFL electric Wire co. Proud Libertarians!


    1. I think they are somewhat misusing the phrase. Well, maybe.

      I would agree that the rule probably suffices the rational basis test and derivatives, which it looked like the court applied here (decided that the city acted rationally in making the rule, NOT that it balanced competing interests incorrectly or correctly or gave undue preference to one side).

      And generally that statement is true.

      But in economics, innovation is probably the closest thing you can find to a free lunch. The statement holds for a given system with no innovation, and the economics subcategory of innovation is predicated on it being one of few exceptions to that general rule.

      The innovation here (food trucks) has considerable negative externalities that it is appropriate for the city to consider, if stupidly as it did here. So the statement might apply ... but it is weird for the judge to use it on one the one scenario where free lunches theoretically exist.

      I would imagine it would be more appropriate to use it on a regulatory taking cases where the government claims no damages, or in favor of the government in a case where the court basically says every policy has winners and lovers you can't sue just because you are a loser ... which it sort of did here but in a probably inappropriate context (innovation).

      1. The externality of being "unfair" competition is none of the government's business. A business license is not property. The government has no business playing favorites in competitive markets.

      2. ...what negative externalities? Food options that by moving around can minimize travel time to them, can provide additional variety beyond what stationary restaurants can provide, can introduce more competition into the market to the benefit of consumers in prices, quantities, and varieties?

        This is protectionism, pure and simple.

        1. Traffic, crowding in certain areas, the "restaurant experience being harmed by trucks, and yes, harm to the restaurant industry, are all technically externalities. You might not take then seriously, and I don't, but the state is allowed to consider it. Its rational basis. If you can hypothetically come up with something you win.

          I'm not defending the law. Its an awful law. I'm just saying the basis of the statement depends upon if you can come up with some cost.

  2. There are, however, lunches for which I do not have to pay.

  3. > Nobody disputes that mobile vendors add value to Baltimore City.

    I do. Fuck those stupid little cell-phone stores.

    Oh, wait.

  4. I zaw Meester Heinlien's grant-taughter purrr-forrrrming een a rowknroolll bant. Shee zing preeetty vell, but shee TANSTAAFL.

  5. I think that Baltimore has bigger problems....


    1. Pretty much every big city run by Democrats has big problems.

      1. I've driven through West Baltimore. It is another world with abandoned buildings and deteriorating infrastructure. I've read about Detroit's problem with abandoned properties. How common is it in other cities? I didn't see anything comparable in South Central Los Angeles or Washington's Ward 8.

  6. "...legitimate interest in promoting the vibrancy of its commercial districts..."
    What is the constitutional standard for judging "vibrancy?"

  7. Prof. Volokh, thanks for helping us understand this court opinion. I'm not sure I completely grok the issue, but once I do, I will accept, savor, and cherish it.

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