Monday, November 10, 2008

Tacos and Tags

Apparently, Houston has a serious problem with renegade taco truck owners. I say apparently because this past week City Council considered an ordinance to require mobile food vendors to carry a radio-tag on their vehicles. According to the Chronicles political blog, the purpose is to be sure that mobile food vendors "are actually visiting the city commissaries to clean up, as required."

Last November a new ordinance requiring mobile food vendors to visit a city commissary within 24-hours prior to serving food went into effect. At the commissary the vendors are to dump waste and obtain clean water. A Chronicle article at the time quoted Robert Cambrice, senior assistant city attorney: "The public needs protection from unclean utensils, unclean facilities. This is in the public's interest."

Certainly, nobody wishes to eat contaminated food. But that does not justify compelling mobile food vendors to visit city commissaries. There are other ways to achieve clean utensils and clean facilities without resorting to force. And more importantly, why is the City even worried about such things? Policing mobile food vendors is not a proper government function.

Mr. Cambrice cites the "public interest" as justification for the ordinance. But there is no such thing as the "public interest". The public does not speak with one voice. The public agrees on few, if any issues. In truth, members of the public have a wide variety of interests. Consequently, the "public interest" really means that the interests of some will take precedence over the interests of others. Which means, some will be permitted to use the power of government compulsion to impose their interests on others. The "public interest" is nothing more than a rationalization for forcing some individuals to sacrifice their values to others.

Citing the "public interest", or "common good", or the "general welfare" can be, and is, used to justify nearly anything. We must regulate land use for the "common good". We must provide health care for the "general welfare". Allowing random and invasive searches is necessary for the "public interest". Pick any issue that involves the violation of individual rights, and not far behind you will find its advocates proclaiming the "public interest" as justification.

The implication underlying the ordinance, as well as others like it, is that individuals will sell tainted food unless they are rigorously controlled by government. Not only does this defy common sense, it ignores the actual facts. A business that poisons its customers, whether intentionally, accidentally, or through negligence, is not going to stay in business long. First, its customers would go elsewhere. Second, if such were done intentionally, criminal penalties would apply.

Mobile food vendors, who are predominantly Hispanic, fought the ordinance in court. Their attorney, David Mestemaker, stated that the ordinance is the result of "the racist agenda of certain legislators." This may be true, but it doesn't address the fundamental issue-- that is, the ordinance violates the individual rights of all mobile food vendors, regardless of their race.

The sustenance of one's life requires effort. Food, clothing, shelter, and other values do not magically appear. They must be produced. Each individual has a moral right to take the actions necessary to sustain his life, so long as he respects the mutual rights of others. To deny him this right is to deny him the means of sustaining his life.

While the City's ordinance does not deny mobile food vendors the right to operate, it imposes significant hardships on the business owners. Some vendors spend three hours a day meeting the city's requirements. Those are hours away from their business, or family, or other activities. Those are hours taken from them simply because the City believes clean spoons are more important than individual rights.

What is particularly sad is mobile food vendors are attempting to make an honest living. They are taking responsibility for their own lives. They are not asking for handouts. They simply want to be free to ply their trade. And the City is making that more and more difficult.

Rather than making these hard-working, industrious people out to be villains and potential criminals, the City should be celebrating their efforts. These are the type of people who have made Houston great. It is a gross injustice to put arbitrary barriers in their way.

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