Bureaucracy All the Way Down

People tend to think that bureaucracy is a problem of centralization—of power concentrated in Washington, DC, or in state capitals. I think the problem of bureaucracy is more cultural than organizational or doctrinal. The culture of bureaucracy has taken root in most local governments—the unit of government supposedly closest and most responsive to the people. Like the turtles in the probably apocryphal story of Bertrand Russell, it’s bureaucracy all the way down. In fact it may be even worse at the local level than in Washington some times.

A few years ago I came across a map of the local jurisdictions that imposed bureaucratic restrictions (and often prohibitions) on . . . little kids lemonade stands, such as the Coralville, Iowa, police shutting down 4-year-old Abigail Krstinger’s sidewalk lemonade stand because she lacked a $400 city permit—a feat duplicated in Midway, Georgia; Appleton, Wisconsin; McAllen, Texas, and more than three dozen other cities across the country that were reported in the media.  Some parents were slapped with $500 fines for allowing their kids to sell lemonade without the proper (expensive) permits.  Local bureaucracies have even restricted or stopped annual Girl Scout cookie sales drives. (See also this story.)

Public health bureaucrats might at least be able to make out a tendentious case of preventing an obscure lemon juice-borne bacteria, though none has yet been offered anywhere that anyone can find. Maybe kids will set up in a location that might cause traffic or is actually hazardous (like in the median of a busy boulevard or something). But in the absence of such rare circumstances the default position for any sensible person is that the number of kids lemonade stands that should be shut down is zero.

And so naturally this story has me reaching for my pitchfork:

Stapleton neighbor calls police on boys’ Memorial Day lemonade stand

DENVER — Being a mom can be a delicate balance—one that Jennifer Knowles knows all too well. She just earned her PhD while raising three rambunctious boys with her husband.

The balance Knowles and parents all over the world face is loving and supporting their kids while teaching them about things like responsibility to lay the foundation for their futures. That was exactly what Knowles was trying to do this Memorial Day in her Stapleton neighborhood.

“We have never had a lemonade stand and the boys thought Memorial Day weekend is going to be great weather, so why not have a lemonade stand across the street in the park,” Knowles said. . . All of the money from the stand was going to charity. The boys were planning on donating all of their proceeds to Compassion International. . .

Now you can guess what’s coming next.

But just a half-hour into their business venture, police arrived.

“The police officers came over and they said that because my boys and I did not have permits for a lemonade stand they shut us down and we had to stop immediately,” she said. “My boys were crushed. They were devastated. And I can’t believe that happened. I remember as a child I always had lemonade stands and never had to worry about being shut down by the police officers. I mean that’s unheard of.”

Turns out someone had complained to the police, which means the Knowles family has some truly crappy neighbors. But why should the police be so mindless as to jump to the complaints of neighbors about a kids lemonade stand?


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