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Opening Arguments

Retail thuggery

Heard a story once that may be apocryphal but is so good it should be true even if it isn't, so I've used it anecdotally in editorials several times. It's the one about the famous department store that got its start as a pushcart vendor whose owners, on achieving success, made a priority of having pushcarts outlawed. Now here's the real thing:

COLUMBUS, Indiana — Columbus Mayor Kristen Brown has shelved a proposal that would allow street vendors to hawk their wares, following pushback from business owners who worry that they would lose customers and make it harder to find parking.

At least they're being honest about it cutting into their profits instead of spouting a lot of nonsense about the public good. It is, of course, none of Columbus City Hall's damn business who gets retail dollars and who does not. But it's no big surprise that business interests collude with the government to keep down the competittion. You see it everywhere, from the hairdressers who support licensing boards to keep out the riffraff to package store owners who lobby against Sunday alcohol sales so they don't have to open up on those days to compete with the grocery stores.

The big losers are the people of Columbus, who will be deprived of the variety and price depression that come from competition. And they're the ones who can stop this nonsense by making their voices heard.

Stray thought: It might have been Macy's or Bloomingdale's, which started out as street vendors in New York, a city not exactly friendly to the open-air hawkers these days:

"With a legislative cap of only 853 licenses [for general merchandise], and a waiting list of thousands, the chance of obtaining a license at this time is unlikely," according to this informational sheet [PDF] from the city. Food vending permits are capped at about 5,100, and there are similarly long waiting lists to obtain these highly valuable permits.

According to the advocacy and industry group the Street Vendor Project at the Urban Justice Center, there are upwards of 20,000 vendors in the city, and maybe even more. Because of the shortage of permits and the difficulty of obtaining the ones there are, the majority of street vendors operate illegally.