Recently, Chattanooga Free Press Editor Drew Johnson penned an opinion piece entitled "Regulations kill a dream" in which he laments the demise of a small business start-up at the hands of buffoonish and insulated bureaucrats. Johnson pegs the demise of the pedicab business "Buzz Chattanooga" on not just Parks and Recreation Department Head Larry Zehnder and City Council representatives Jack Benson and Peter Murphy, but on government regulations in-themselves, using the death of one small business as anecdotal evidence for the common corporatist meme that public interests enacted through government regulations kill private interests and stifle economic development, innovation and job growth:
[Buzz Chattanooga owner] Thoreson’s story is the hidden side of regulations that the city council and other bureaucrats rarely consider in their absurd exercises in trying to keep people safe and micromanage businesses. Too often, regulations stifle entrepreneurs’ ability to innovate, and prevent them from improving their businesses, serving more customers and, ultimately, making Chattanooga a better place. . . Chattanooga’s businesses are weighed down by hundreds of pointless regulations. Rather than adding red tape and sending more Chattanoogans to the unemployment line, city leaders owe it to job providers to spend time looking for ways to reduce the burdens of excessive regulations on businesses.I think that Mr. Johnson's article deserves a response, and luckily one has been provide by my good friend Michael Gilliland. Michael is one of the smartest and most astute political thinkers I know and his opinions on local government are particularly fascinating because he is a dedicated anarchist - NOTE: this does NOT mean someone who believe in "chaos" but rather a libertarian socialist, if you believe that to be a contradiction in terms then I would point you to begin by reading "Notes on Anarchism" by Noam Chomsky. I recently sent Johnson's editorial in an email to Michael and asked him for a response. What Michael sent back, completely off the cuff, was so interesting that I wanted to take the opportunity to share it with everyone else. So here it is, a response to Drew Johnson by Michael Gilliland:
My thoughts are yes and no. Not surprising. Even the comment from Conservative was riding the fence on this. FYI- this group was being regulated under the taxi board, which oversees the carriage business as well. These regulations are almost identical to the ones that [name removed] deals with, including the $100 licensing fee, taillights, etc. But she can go over the Market street Bridge. The taxi board is filled by the owners of the businesses. The carriage owners of the different companies have been rotating their position in the past I hear, but I'm pretty sure [name removed]'s boss doesn't want to spend any time on the board. They handle all new taxi / vehicle applicants, and there is an inspector from the police department that is responsible for ensuring that the regulations are being kept up.
So...my first real problem has to do with the centralized authority of the City Council and the taxi board. Our centralized culture gives ultimate authority over everything to the council, so they are expected to be qualified to rule on all matters pertaining the city. Some legislation whose issues are very familiar to the council might be very well written, but others will be clumsy and ignorant. And I think it would be absurd to see this as just a technocratic mistake; there are plenty of taxi drivers or other interested parties who would've been involved in this discussion. The idea of Jack Benson being the arbiter of power disputes just scares the hell out of me.
But after this initial law-giving, the process is mainly self-managed by the business owners. Not all of them all the time, but sort of an aristocratic democracy that rotates members. So the idea is that major ground rules will be determined by the "City" (the representatives), and then owners can be responsible for seeing how it is done, or dealing with non-enforcement. Wow. Sounds ideal. It is this strange mixture of regulatory hope and conservative entrepreneurial idealism. Except when you have members on the board coming down heavy on their competition. But who would ever hear it? Who knows the taxi board exists? Or when you are trying to bring up any questions that owners rally against. It is another example of trust that the owners' perspective is the most important, and their concerns are really the only directly-affected concerns.
Secondly, I have a problem with no alternative as the only alternative. Sorry. I know that could be confusing. But I hate the discussion being limited to bad regulatory mechanisms, or no regulations whatsoever. The fact is that the pedicab drivers have a responsibility to the community they work in. They are responsible for making sure people are safe, for making sure their brakes work, etc. There definitely has to be accountability on their part to the drivers on the road, the customers they haul around, and pedestrians. And I think liability insurance would be necessary if it wasn't in our horrible privatized world. Barring the expenses, there should be a notice that the cabs are not insured. I don't know that a notice would absolve them of their responsibility. I don't think the horse carriages should ever be allowed to operate without liability insurance, but the potential damage is much greater. These social responsibilities should be discussed with pedicab drivers, taxis, carriage drivers. There should be strong commitments from them, with an understanding of consequences. If society is not able to communicate social responsibilities and gain commitment from individuals, then it fails. And if the public doesn't understand the limits of responsibility, or understand the commitment, society fails.
Our way of dealing with this in chattanooga rests so heavily on authority that broader engagement and commitments are impossible. This process of authority is the law; and once set, it is increasingly difficult to change. It doesn't have to be this way, but civil society isn't organized to provide a process that does this job better. Sounds a little like classic conservatism, but when conservatives talk about civil society they only mean the powers that be. Predominately business owners. Developing an inclusive civil society that is egalitarian, respectful of diversity, bringing people to an ideal that everyone could actually attain...that is the answer. But it also means training civil society to fight state power constantly and reclaim the space that would allow it to actually function.
There is my analysis...the decision was screwed from the outset.
UPDATE 8.23.2012 Larry Zehnder was mislabeled as the Department of Public Works, he is in fact the Department Head of Parks and Rec. The post was updated to reflect this correction.