Free Liberal

Coordinating towards higher values

A Right To Earn A Living?

By William R. Maurer

Imagine you own a business that you built from the ground up. You have satisfied customers, good employees and provide a useful service. There's just one problem: your competitors don't like that you charge less while providing better service. Instead of lowering their prices and working harder, they call their lobbyists and get the government to make your business illegal. Can they get away with this?

According to the U.S. Supreme Court, the answer is “yes.” Since the 1930's, the Court has allowed the government to regulate every aspect of economic activity, even when the government's motivation is to remove competition. It has done so by declaring that the right to earn a living-the ability to earn money to feed, shelter, and educate yourself and your family-is not a fundamental right. And nonfundamental rights can be violated if the government can articulate even the most trivial rational reason for the violation. Remarkably, if it can't, the Court will invent one to help them out.

Beyond the well-founded legal concerns, creating government-imposed private cartels is also terrible public policy because it deprives entrepreneurs of a chance to succeed, forces consumers to pay more for poor service, and turns our government into a pińata for special interests to whack until more protections come out. Last September, the Washington Supreme Court followed this lead and held that the right to earn a living is recognized under the U.S. Constitution, but is not a right that the courts should or would protect.

Luckily, Washingtonians do not rely solely on the U.S. Constitution to protect us. The Washington Constitution throws a wrench into the machineries of government being manipulated for the economic benefit of the few over the interests of the many. Those who founded Washington left the corrupt politics and closed economies of the American Midwest, the Eastern establishment and Europe because they wanted to achieve financial success without having to pay the price demanded by the political bosses and big corporations. To protect the citizens of the new state, our framers created a constitution that prohibits the government from granting special favors to corporate interests.

Today, the Washington Supreme Court will decide if it will hear a case on whether the Washington Constitution prohibits the government from putting an entrepreneur out of business to protect huge corporations from competition.

The case involves Joe Ventenbergs, who owns a construction waste hauling business in Seattle. In 1962, the State limited who could haul to those companies that existed at the time. When the City of Seattle took over regulation in the 1990s, it also made it illegal for anyone to haul, except for the pre-existing providers that had consolidated into two multi-billion dollar out-of-state corporations. All local businesspeople were shut out. In an area tailor-made for an entrepreneur and competition, opportunity and consumer choice took a back seat to political pull.

These kinds of government barriers exclusively harm those without political influence, forcing them to offer services illegally or abandon altogether their dreams of economic independence. But this is what the people who founded this state sought to avoid. The Washington Supreme Court has a chance to return to the vision of our founders and recognize that our state constitution protects the liberty of all Washingtonians, not just the well-connected few.

William R. Maurer is the executive director of the Institute for Justice Washington Chapter, which litigates to protect the rights guaranteed by the Washington Constitution. The Institute represents Joe Ventenbergs in his case currently before the Washington Supreme Court.