The Bikecast Episode #5b: Taco Trucks and Code Enforcement

My latest ramble, starting on 4/20, spilled over into two other bikecasts. I’m attempting to flesh out a couple of examples of a pattern I’ve been noticing alot lately: reliance on the state is back-firing in a number of ways.

Download this episode of the bikecast
Show notes Episode 5b:

Expanding on the previous bikecast, I want to examine another side-effect of involving the police powers of the state in what, previously, was handled in a civilized manner. As a brief recap, the previous patterns were:

1) The state takes on a task previously undertaken by organic social structures. The structures vanish or are eliminated over time. Finally, the state is unable to continue providing the service but the social network no longer exist to absorb the shock.

and

2) The advocates for/against a state prohibition focus the energy of the various organic structures that exist to “work around” existing state policy on changing the law. Once the legal battle is won, further resources are absorbed protecting the decision. When repeal (or return to prohibition) occurs, the work-arounds and other protective structures no longer exist.
In this podcast and the next, I talk about a third, related pattern. A social problem exists and, rather than find human-respecting means of solving the problem, the police power of the state is engaged. After some period of time–the state only makes sense because of these large intervening periods of time–we find that enforcement power running amok.

One of the many things that makes Austin great is the 1000+ mobile food vendors around town. Recently, many of them have begun tweeting their location to alert their fan/followers to their presence–this has nothing to do with the podcast, but it’s pretty kewl. The article I’m referring to in the podcast is this one: http://www.statesman.com/news/content/news/stories/local/2009/08/09/0809foodtrucks.html

It portends a dark future for mobile food in Austin due to the path chosen long ago to “protect” citizens from food borne illnesses. In an affluent society such as ours the problem of food borne illness is pretty remote. This is mostly due to the reality that people won’t go out to eat at a location that is likely to poison them. Making what I’m sure will be my routine but heartfelt privilege caveat*, I feel safe saying that a significant majority of Americans, when they go out for a meal, probably have some choices as to where they go and can steer clear of unsavory mobile food vendors.

As supporting evidence, I’ll refer back to the article and the reality-on-the-ground in Austin: many if not most of the vendors of mobile food are unlicensed or are breaking the law in some manner–making food at home being a common violation, apparently. Yet there have been no reports of illness or complaints against a vendor (except from other vendors). This indicates that customers are holding these vendors to some standard with regard to food safety, and quite naturally so.

Despite the relative ease with which the imagination can generate dozens or hundreds of ways in which food safety could be managed in voluntary, peaceful and human respecting ways, at some point, somebody brought in the city. More likely, the city accorded itself the power to use violence against the purveyors of food.

Fast forward some number of years–I have no idea how many–to the current day. Now the various operators of mobile food businesses are attempting to regulate and enforce their competition out of business because they can’t compete with them on the basis of the quality and prices of their food. As is almost always the case in such scenarios, the winner will be the vendor with the greatest ability to influence policy and the resources to comply with whatever new regulations are mandated. This quote from the piece demonstrates the “big lie” that is repeated ceaselessly in our society (by whom, I wonder):

A business asking for more government regulation is hardly typical, and some competitors, while also supporting tougher rules and heightened enforcement, question Snappy Snacks’ motives. But Snappy Snacks owner Tom Ramsey says pressing for stiffer regulations is the smart thing to do, especially now because upstarts are flooding the Austin market.

Empasis mine. Big business, and please indulge my example of Snappy Snacks as “big business” in this scenario, everywhere and always pushes for controlled regulation. The sweet spot is regulation that, may hurt their bottom line in the short run, but will eliminate their competitors completely and raise the barrier to entry for new would-be competition. Good examples of this phenomenon are energy and natural resource extraction in the United States. A handful of corporations have all but eliminated the possibility of a new entrant to, say, mineral extraction.

Gabriel Kolko details this quite well in The Triumph of Conservatism . His position, well supported, is that the “progressive” legislation of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was, in fact, written by and to the advantage of the most powerful corporations and combinations of the day in order to stave off competition and consolidate their positions in their respective market sectors and industries.

Returning to the article and the Austin mobile food scene. The political losers will be the small vendors that are squeezed out beyond the margin with the increased costs of doing business. The small vendors, in turn, are pushing for stricter enforcement of licensing laws. The grey market will be affected to the degree that existing licensing laws are more rigorously enforced.

And Austin loses. We will see the end of the vendor boom as increasingly restrictive regulations and enforcement drive out variety and innovation in favor of homogeneity. Not because of economies-of-scale or a collective move to a consensus that a particular kind of food is the best for us all. Rather, it will be because one vendor is able to push the others out using the police power of the government.

I refuse to believe that this is the outcome envisioned by whomever originally moved to have city officials keep an eye on food safety. The pattern dictates this outcome, however, when the state takes over an aspect of social life. It is, in the end, entirely unaccountable to the wishes of the citizens–and this is at the most local level in a relatively small city.

*Privilege caveat. I’m totally stealing this from IOZ:
As a louche layabout, and a privileged worker in the cultural class, I try, in offering up analyses of our political and actual economies, to remain cognizant of my privilege, to self-implicate as a member of the Western managerial class, albeit a marginal one, and to recognize that my experience of urban affluence, multicultural tolerance, and a fancy-pants liberal arts degree is not universal.
In this case, I understand that I’m already living a life of wild privilege getting to choose where, when, and what to eat. I understand that many people don’t have this luxury.

Related

Here’s a story about regulation-as-commerical-weapon in Los Angeles: 

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/04/world/americas/04iht-4tacos.12554510.html

    • Brick
    • February 12th, 2011

    A bit of karmic justice has now visited itself on Mr. Snappy Snack: http://www.statesman.com/news/local/new-mobile-food-rules-ensnare-man-who-pushed-1246761.html

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