Thursday, February 9, 2012

A Tyranny of Paperwork and Processing Fees

So, over the last couple days, I have run across two separate stories in major media outlets about the trials and tribulations of two women, each trying to do something completely legal.

The first is the story of Juliet Priess, who spent two years and "hundreds of thousands of dollars" to open an ice cream parlor in San Francisco.
Ms. Pries said it took two years to open the restaurant, due largely to the city’s morass of permits, procedures and approvals required to start a small business. While waiting for permission to operate, she still had to pay rent and other costs, going deeper into debt each passing month without knowing for sure if she would ever be allowed to open.
“It’s just a huge risk,” she said, noting that the financing came from family and friends, not a bank. “At several points you wonder if you should just walk away and take the loss.”
Ms. Pries said she had to endure months of runaround and pay a lawyer to determine whether her location (a former grocery, vacant for years) was eligible to become a restaurant. There were permit fees of $20,000; a demand that she create a detailed map of all existing area businesses (the city didn’t have one); and an $11,000 charge just to turn on the water.
The second is the story of Emily Miller's effort to legally acquire a handgun in the District of Columbia. I should say "stories," in this case, since Miller has documented her travails in a blog for the Washington Times since last October.
Law-abiding citizens have to take a five-hour class that is only taught outside of the District, pay $465 in fees, sign six forms, pass a written test on gun laws, get fingerprinted, be subject to a police ballistics test and take days off work.
And that's just to get the gun. Miller notes that the District of Columbia prohibits her from possessing her gun anywhere other than her home (or in a locked box in transit to the firearms registration office) and places further onerous restrictions on the sale of ammunition.

In each of these instances, the subject wants to do something perfectly legal. (In Emily Miller's case, she merely wants to act on constitutional right that was explicitly confirmed by a recent Supreme Court decision.) Yet, each woman is subjected to extensive costs, hassles, and bureaucratic inefficiencies. Each woman was successful in doing something perfectly legal only because she had the time, intelligence, and resources to overcome these barriers.

(Just in case reality is too abstract for you, you might recall Cutty's tortured efforts to open a boxing gym for troubled youth on The Wire.)

These stories leave me deeply angry.

First, these kind of permitting regimes invert the basic relationship between citizens in a free republic and their government. In a free society, we typically presume that a person is acting in compliance with the law---that he is innocent---unless there is an affirmative demonstration that he is not---until he is proven guilty. Requirements to demonstrate your compliance with the law flip that equation. Absent an ability affirmatively demonstrate one's lawfulness, a person is presumed to be in violation of the law; a person is guilty until he proves his innocence.

Second, obtuse bureaucracies discriminate against the working, the simple, and the poor. A woman who cannot take time off of work, afford a $465 processing fee, or understand the paperwork and procedure for becoming a licensed gun owner in the District of Columbia is less free to defend herself, her home, and her family than a educated, salaried, middle-class newspaper editor. A person without "family and friends" capable of helping finance $31,000 in fees for permits and starting water service is less free that someone who can call on these kind of resources. For all the recent chatter in the world about inequality, there has been embarrassingly little attention paid to the ways in which the government creates and exacerbates differences between classes of people by erecting barriers to personal safety, innovation, and economic opportunity that exclude those who stand to gain the most from self-protection, invention, and entrepreneurship.

Mostly, though, stories like these just make me think about the countless, invisible ways that we are all worse off because of this kind of crap. How many ice cream shops (restaurants, gyms, factories, mines, farms, bakeries, charities) will we never be because someone's entrepreneurial impulse was smothered by the tyranny of paperwork and processing fees? How many people might have started businesses, gotten better jobs, or otherwise lived a better life if the costs of starting a business were just limited to the costs of starting a business? How many people will be terrorized or victimized in their homes because they where overwhelmed by the government-imposed costs and hassles of purchasing the means to defend themselves?

Tyranny can come in a lot of forms. It is easy to recognize when it's wearing jackboots and carrying a gun. It's a bit harder to spot, though, when it comes carrying a clipboard and manilla folders, but the difference between the two is a matter of degree and not of kind. The rights to act in any manner consistent with the law and the rights of others, to be presumed innocent, and to be treated equally by the law are fundamental elements of a free society. We are losing them, and we are worse off for it.

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