There was a rare outbreak of honesty in Columbus last week. Mayor Kristen Brown was considering a proposal to allow street vendors to sell food and other goods from carts and trucks in the downtown area, because she thought it would make downtown Columbus more vibrant and welcoming. But there was terrific pushback from downtown business owners, so she has shelved the proposal indefinitely.
The merchants, to their credit, did not spout the usual nonsense about safety or the public good. They want to keep the vendors out for the obvious reason that allowing them in would cut into the profits of businesses already downtown and might take up parking spaces used by workers and customers. “We were here first,” in other words, so keep out the competition.
Such collusion is common enough to be standard operating procedure. Business owners talk a lot about the benefits of the free and open market, but when push comes to shove, they want the rules rigged in their favor. That’s why hairdressers actually want strict licensing requirements – it helps keep the riffraff out of the profession. It’s why package store owners are desperately trying to keep Sunday liquor sales outlawed so they don’t have to stay open an extra day every week to compete with supermarkets,
As it happens, the merchants are correct – the street vendors probably would eat into their profits. They’re also right that there’s some “unfairness” about it. The street vendors don’t have the high overhead costs faced by the brick-and-mortar merchants. And they can come and go as they please instead of having to operate more or less continuously.
But that’s what the free enterprise system is all about. Companies try to take advantage of their strengths and the competition’s weaknesses so they can set the lowest price possible or offer the best service as an alternative. Fast-food restaurants have a tremendous advantage over the upscale places. They can use high volume to make a larger profit with a lowermarkup. So, should government give the fancy restaurants a break by banning the fast-food places?
Of course not. It’s none of government’s business who gets retail dollars and who does not. If there is a role for government, it is to ensure a level playing field, not rig the game in favor of one side or the other.
The big losers are the people of Columbus, who will not have all the choices they might have had, and won’t get to experience the price breaks good, healthy competition can achieve. They’re also the ones who can put a stop to such nonsense with a good, old-fashioned fight against city hall.