Entrepreneurs falling by the roadside

On Memorial Day, I was surprised by a report by KHON2 News: “Illegal roadside vendors create safety concern” (5/27/12). Police received more than 20 complaints about the illegal roadside vending and traffic concerns. It was distracting. It seemed petty. It took attention away from something more important: paying tribute to our soldiers and remembering those we have lost.

But as the weeks went by, I decided that it’s not a trivial issue.

Instead of reacting with outrage (these vendors are breaking the law!) or anger (the government is hurting people who are trying to make a few extra bucks!), let’s take a moment to consider both sides of the issue.

On one hand, we have state law and public safety. Roadsides are public property. Green, open spaces make driving more scenic and relaxing. They can also act as a buffer for cars and space for emergency vehicles. Just as we wouldn’t want vendors to set up on our front lawn, we don’t want to lose our open spaces to commercial businesses.

* State law prohibits the commercial use of state roads or roadsides. It also allows for exemptions and rezoning.

* State law requires business licensing. Government wants to ensure that businesses compete fairly and meet minimum standards. Government wants to protect us from predatory, illegal, and risky businesses, especially food prepared in unsanitary conditions or stored in unsafe environments.

* Public safety calls for smooth traffic flow (minimal distractions; no abrupt stops or illegal turns) and safe roadsides (no obstructions).

On the other hand, we have entrepreneurs who are offering both convenience and value to people who want to buy flowers. Some roadside vendors may have a seasonal hobby, offering crafts, homegrown produce, and flowers. Other roadside vendors are farmers or business start-ups.

* Entrepreneurs are providing a service. They are not setting high prices and no one is forced to buy their products.

* Entrepreneurs use their own resources (flowers or money), on their own time (they could be doing something else), and take a risk that their flowers won’t sell (they could lose money).

* Roadside vending can help individuals earn extra money, supplement a low income, and help families avoid relying on government aid.

This is not a minor disagreement or a story on a slow news night. It’s a fundamental debate about the public good and individual rights. So how can we compromise between business regulation, public safety, and entrepreneurship? How can laws balance the public and the individual? Do we follow the letter of the law or should laws adjust to changing circumstances?

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