What Does It Take? Where Does It End?


Many years ago we went on safari in Kenya. Our guide was a cheerful fellow named Jacob. He was a good driver, because he had to be: the roads we traveled had been built by Italian prisoners of war in the 1940s, and left untended since. The potholes were so bad that at times we left the road altogether, because the unpaved roadside was smoother than the "pavement." We often crept along at less than 10 miles per hour, bouncing from rut to rut, hole to hole.

I noticed that the windshield of Jacob’s Toyota van was heavily decorated with various licenses. It seemed remarkable that this poor fellow — hardly affluent! — should pay so much tribute to strangers for the "privilege" of driving his van along roads in deplorable condition due to the indifference of the very people to whom he paid so much! And when his shocks and springs needed replacement, did they contribute to the repair? You know the answer to that.

I was reminded of Jacob recently when I went into a local Chinese restaurant to pick up an order. On the wall opposite the door, no doubt prominently displayed because some "law" required it, were taped various documents. I wrote them down.

  • State of Missouri: sales license
  • City of Chesterfield: license
  • Division of Code Enforcement: certificate of inspection
  • St. Louis county: license
  • St. Louis County: health department
  • Metro-West Fire Protection District: use permit
  • ServSafe certificate

A triumphant triumvirate of strangers: state, county, and city, had extorted license fees from the owners, no doubt at considerable cost. Who benefited, other than, of course, the licensing officials? Did I, the customer benefit? Did the owner benefit? You could argue that I benefited in that the licenses guaranteed that the establishment adhered to certain sanitary standards for the production of food. No doubt the fast food restaurants that recently were the source of large numbers of food-poisoning cases due to contaminated produce also had such reassuring licenses on display. Were the inspectors of those restaurants held liable for their failure to prevent those outbreaks? No, I suspect they retained their jobs, and the fees charged. If there was any liability, it fell on the shoulders of the restaurant, and/or its suppliers.

Does the "use permit" from the Fire Protection District mean that the place will not catch fire? Or that the fire extinguishers, no doubt required. would be sufficient to extinguish any blaze that sprang up?

A naïve soul might assume that if you wish to open a restaurant, you simply buy or lease a suitable building, install a kitchen and serving area, and open the door for customers. Such naiveté is probably only found among kindergarteners today. For one thing, you must have insurance, probably by law. (Odd that no certificate of insurance must be displayed). And you must buy the various documents: licenses, inspection certificates, etc., being hawked by assorted public "servants," at a high price. You are not free to decline their offers!

But it’s worse. The suppliers from whom you’re going to buy your meats and vegetables, not to mention furniture, paint, flooring, stoves, ovens, plumbing fixtures, etc., etc., also have such licenses on display on their premises. Ditto for their suppliers.

The economic consequences probably cannot be calculated. Who knows what a serving of sweet and sour pork would cost if served in a free economy, not plundered by bureaucrats? The looting by license peddlers is so common and universal that no one today is offended by it, or expects to escape it. It’s like paying protection money to Al Capone in Chicago in the 20s, except that it’s now called "licensure" and it’s legal, because the people who do it write the "law."

At least as offensive as the economic loss is the patronizing attitude of the looters. It is accepted as a given that without their (paid) permission, restaurants, as well as just about every other business, would be unsafe, predatory establishments operated by unscrupulous rascals. Only they, the licensers, will protect us! As if we were not smart enough to avoid a restaurant where people frequently were poisoned. Or the owners of such an establishment were not smart enough to realize that they were going to lose their shirts if they didn’t clean up their act. And if we accept the notion that the bureaucracy is only acting to protect us, where does such protection end? How can we logically resist the inspection of our own kitchens, refrigerators, and stoves, if our well-being is the legitimate concern of these officious strangers?

It’s time we realized that privacy, except as it pertains to a woman’s "right" to an abortion, is a relative thing. In this brave new world, we cannot adhere to outmoded concepts of privacy when the public good is at stake. And it IS at stake: just ask the inspectors and licensing officials! Where would we be without them? (Dare I say it? Free!!)

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.