Taking a Bite Out of Victimless Crime
by J. H. Huebert
by J. H. Huebert
What secret activity went on in the garage of a seemingly friendly, well-liked, balding sixty-year-old Florida man before police surrounded his house and arrested him on two felony charges?
The Palm Beach County sheriff's department, the man's neighbors, and the man himself — Roger Bean — all agree: the “crime” was making dentures and temporary bridges for grateful customers at a mere fraction of the price dentists charge.
Instead of $2,000 dentures from a dentist, Mr. Bean's clients got their dentures from him, fitted, for as little as $200.
An anonymous tip supposedly made police aware of Mr. Bean's “crimes.” But news reports reveal Mr. Bean's neighbors and customers had no cause for complaint.
A nearby resident, Linda Armantrout, said “he's the best neighbor we've got.” The head of the neighborhood crime watch, 73-year-old Ron St. Mary, said that Mr. Bean is not a criminal because he is “helping the old people who don't have a few dollars,” and added, “I think the world of him.”
Yet another local resident warned Mr. Bean when she saw the sheriff's detectives coming. She'll be charged with obstruction of justice for having done him the neighborly favor.
Since the customers are happy, and Mr. Bean isn't dealing in anything that stands to harm innocent third parties, like nuclear weapons, why the fuss?
Mr. Bean calls himself a “denturist.” In some states, you can be a denturist without a dentistry license. But not in Florida. In Florida, at least according to Palm Beach County detective Don Zumpano, if you provide dentures without a license, you're not a dentist, and you're not a “denturist” — you're a felon.
But why should it be criminal, let alone a felony, to peacefully provide a service to paying customers — especially where licensed providers often charge exorbitant amounts?
The late Nobel economics laureate Milton Friedman explained why in his book Capitalism and Freedom. Looking at the evidence, he discovered that dentists — and doctors, lawyers, barbers, and members of other professions which require licenses — do not want competition from the likes of Roger Bean, and thus lobby for laws to keep competitors out.
Dentists want to restrict the number of people who can provide services like theirs, and thereby drive prices up. This benefits dentists, but costs consumers. It seems there is too much money to be made in making and fitting dentures for dentists to let just anyone do it.
Sure, the dentists won't admit that, but how could they? Instead, they claim it's “to protect the public” — which goes down easier than simply saying, “We want more money.”
Detective Zumpano apparently buys the dentists' line, saying there are “health risks with operating this facility outside of your house.” Dr. Phil Bilger, dental director of the local health department, predictably claims that there's “a whole issue of infection control” that require dentures to be fitted by a licensed dentist.
But it's unclear that Mr. Bean's customers were at any greater risk of infection than most dentists' patients. Even if his garage seemed “filthy” to detectives, as they claim, the fact is that no customers reported problems with infection or anything else. Instead — as with so many other victimless crimes — police had to set up a sting to catch Mr. Bean.
And even if some unlicensed dentists or denturists worked under conditions that were somewhat less than perfectly sanitary, or even if their dentures weren't as good as the ones you can get from a licensed dentist — so what?
As Dr. Friedman pointed out, people looking to buy a car aren't forced to by a Cadillac. Instead, you're relatively free to choose how much quality and safety you want. So why should all dental service consumers be forced to pay for Cadillac quality? Sure, your mouth and your health are really important — but they're important to you, so why shouldn't it be your decision?
Dr. Bilger raises another dubious argument, claiming that denturists like Mr. Bean “are not licensed in this state, so they're not held to any standard of care.” That's simply not true. If someone were harmed by the likes of Mr. Bean — and, again, there is no evidence at all that anyone was harmed — they could sue him for negligence.
When police came for Mr. Bean, one neighbor was heard to yell, “You should be ashamed of yourselves!” In fairness, we might say that the police were just doing their jobs—although undoubtedly there are enough real crimes like murder, rape, and theft being committed in Palm Beach County that police resources would be better spent elsewhere than on busy-work.
The people who have no excuse in this are Florida's lawmakers and the gatekeepers of the dental profession, who use the government to prevent people like Roger Bean from earning an honest living, and force elderly customers to pay dentists high prices for dentures they need.
This article originally appeared in the Palm Beach Post.
May 12, 2007
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