Officials claim doing business is a revocable “privilege,” but many Americans see it as a right that they’ll exercise with or without licenses and permits.
It appears that government-imposed restrictions on travel, business, and social contact don't become more palatable with age. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to simmer, the one competency that officials have consistently displayed is in tightening the screws, using the licenses and permissions they require as enforcement tools. For people tired of being bossed around, the obvious response is to carry on without the government's imprimatur—and they're doing so in droves. It's an attitude likely to live on long after the crisis has passed.
"Our businesses are doomed," Chris Polone, co-owner of a Fort Worth bar that was one of more than 800 such establishments to open in defiance of Texas closure orders, said at the end of July. "We have nothing to lose. We can either fight this thing, Or we can starve ourselves out."
As apocalyptic as that sounds, it's a reasonable statement when the review site Yelp reports that 55 percent of all businesses shut during the pandemic are believed to have closed their doors forever. For many entrepreneurs, breaking the rules may be the only way to survive.
That the rebellion among Texas taverns is alive and well is obvious from a desperate-sounding open letter issued last week by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC). "Recently we have spoken with business owners who tell us they don't intend to follow the orders," wrote A. Bentley Nettles, the commission's executive director. "When a business tells TABC it doesn't intend to follow these orders, you leave the agency with no option but to revoke your license and shut you down."
The letter contains much huffing and puffing about how it's a "privilege" to be in the booze business, subject to following politicians' dictates. But that's what government officials always say when they impose licensing requirements on people trying to make a living. Then, feeding yourself and keeping a roof over your head becomes subject to jumping through hoops, paying fees, and keeping the right people happy.
With one out of four U.S. jobs now requiring an occupational license—not to mention the business licenses, liquor licenses, and other forms of official permission that businesses must pursue—legally making a buck can be a precarious activity even in good times. It gets that much worse when a crisis drives politicians into frenzies of panic and power-lust, with the authority to grant and revoke permissions a tool for imposing their will.
"We have gotten 25,000 complaints to the State of businesses that are in violation of the reopening plan—25,000 complaints," New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo snarled in June. "A bar or restaurant that is violating these rules can lose their liquor license. State Liquor Authority inspectors are out. We have a task force of State investigators who are out. You can lose your liquor license and that is a big deal for a bar or restaurant."
Among the jurisdictions that have threatened or actually revoked licenses for businesses violating lockdown orders are New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Clark County, Nevada, to name just a small sample. The affected businesses include barbers, car washes, furniture stores, gyms, and smoke shops—all requiring government permission to legally operate.
But operating legally isn't the only way to do business.
"Good luck," Bob Martin, a 79-year-old barber in Snohomish, Washington, told officials when they said they were going to charge him $90,000 in fines for trimming hair after his license was pulled and in defiance of state closure orders.
Gym owners in Bellmawr, New Jersey, broke into their own establishment and resumed serving customers after authorities forcibly closed the place. "The defiant owners of Atilis Gym kicked in plywood panels that had sealed the entrance to their Browning Road business since Monday, drawing cheers from a group of flag-waving supporters," reported the Courier-Post.
And, of course, there are those 800-plus bars in Texas, serving customers despite orders to the contrary.
Officials in Los Angeles have run into so much push-back that now they're threatening to cut water and power to businesses and homes that don't comply with lockdown orders. Depriving people of electricity and running water seems an unlikely means for improving public health, but officialdom is always more interested in compelling submission than in achieving reasonable outcomes.
But submission is harder to come by when the stakes are so high. The government is actually ordering people to refrain from earning their keep, and instead to humbly submit to bankruptcy and beggary. To some, submitting to the rules can look foolish and suicidal—like baring your throat to a predator.
And once you've battled government officials threatening your ability to make a living during hard times, why would you assume, after the crisis passes, that they've suddenly become wiser and better disposed to your wellbeing? People who have questioned officials' judgment and defied their orders are unlikely to lose that habit after the pandemic passes. Sure, they'll probably continue to apply for licenses to operate just to make life easy. But they'll remember that officials tried to strip them of the "privilege" of putting food on the table and they'll realize just how dangerous it is to rely on such permission.
It's too much to hope that the licensing and permitting apparatus that politicians have carefully constructed over the years will soon be swept away by a righteous wave of public revulsion. Big changes are hard and the permission state that we live in will, almost certainly, still formally exist in the years to come. But people aren't going to be so eager to ask permission, and they'll be much more willing to live their lives in its absence.
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