Saturday, July 23, 2005

Because they can, part two


[Continued from here]

Our city doesn't have a business district as such. What it has is frontage on one commercial street, to the extent of three buildings, at the edge of town. In one of those buildings, a lady recently opened a thrift store. It's cool. I like it. I try to take the kids down once or twice a week to grab a few useless tchochkes -- and pick up some used books as well, of course.

Fronting on the thrift store building is a wide concrete sidewalk -- actually, an apron or porch of sorts. When the thrift store opened, it made perfect sense to put certain items -- bicycles, furniture and such -- out on that porch each day. It wasn't a mess. It was a completely appropriate business display. It drew attention to the business. It brought customers into the business who otherwise might not have even noticed the business.

Naturally, of course, something had to be done about such a flagrant exercise of property rights. What if it caught on? What if the other businesses (none of which sell the type of goods that benefit from out front display, but who cares about facts?) emulated her or suddenly got the idea that they might be within their rights to oh, say, wipe their posteriors after defecating without a city permit in triplicate, five inspections and a special town meeting? Anarchy! Blood in the streets!

So, a couple of the apparatchiki dropped in, brandishing an ordinance that clearly didn't apply, and intimidated the lady into moving her goods inside until the thing could be sorted out. When she showed up at the next board meeting to mildly remonstrate with them over what was clearly a severe blow to her business, they got serious. When I say "serious," I mean "seriously pissed that a friggin' peasant would dare question our authority to make her do whatever we damn well want her to do. Doesn't she know that her job is to cough up her property taxes and keep her mouth shut?"

At this latest meeting, the board's purpose was to come up with an ordinance to close the "loophole" that was represented by the unfitness of the cited ordinance to actually address the "situation" they wanted to "correct" (this must be done constantly, since the serfs still haven't figure out that anything not mandated by city ordinance is obviously implicitly prohibited by city ordinance).

What the board ended up doing was adding businesses to the city's garage sale ordinance. Under that ordinance, citizens can have up to two garage sales a year of up to (I think) three days each, for which they must get a cheap permit (I think it's a dollar).

Never mind that the purpose of the garage sale ordinance was to prevent people from running businesses in the residential area, while the thrift store is in the er, ah, business area. And never mind that the businesses buy, ahem, business licenses so that they can, uh, do business 365 days a year. This lady had quite obviously pissed someone on the board off (I'm pretty sure I know who) by failing to appropriately bow, scrape and whine "yes, massa" when spoken to by a member of the political class. So, they took away a significant part of her business for 358 days of the year ... because they could.

Like I said, the vote was unanimous. I was especially disappointed in one alderwoman whom I thought had better morals, or at least more sense, than to stoop to this kind of blatant and pointless bullying. I happened to be sitting about three feet from her, between my two sons. When the vote had been taken, I leaned over to my seven-year-old and said "Daniel? Remember awhile back when you asked me what evil was? You just saw it."

The alderwoman did a bit of a double take. And she at least had the conscience to look a little embarrassed for the rest of the meeting. But the damage is done. If this woman loses all the money and effort she's put into building a business to provide for herself and her family, the city board won't even notice ... because, you see, they classify their "neighbors" into two sets:

1) Those whom they are trying to "help" by mandating everything from maximum grass length to minimum downspout diameter; and

2) Those whom they presume to regulate "for the public good," with said good subsisting in whatever the politicians' collective mood happens to be on any given day.

Neither group, of course, being nearly as important in and of itself than the personal whims of the politicians themselves.

Unlike government at the federal, state, or even large county level -- where at least the budgets and stakes are high enough that countervailing interests achieve some sort of balance through lobbying and such -- at the small city level, there are virtually no checks on government power.

They do what they want, when they want, because they can. And, unless they happen to mess up and find themselves tangling with a Carl Drega or a Marvin Heemeyer, they'll never even understand why they shouldn't.

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