Mobile vendors scored an important victory for economic liberty today when the city of El Paso, Texas, repealed a law that prohibited vendors from operating within 1,000 feet (nearly four city blocks) of any restaurant, grocer, or convenience store. This effectively turned El Paso into a “no-vending” zone, limiting vendors to narrow pockets of the city where customers were sparse. The law also prohibited vendors from stopping and awaiting customers, forcing them instead to endlessly circle the block until customers were waiting at the curb.
These regulations had nothing to do with food or traffic safety — such laws have been on the books for decades. Rather, these regulations existed for one purpose: to protect restaurants from honest competition.
Nationwide, mobile vendors have quietly come under attack from protectionist regulations similar to El Paso’s. Chicago bans vendors from operating within 200 feet of restaurants. San Antonio bans them within 300 feet. And Baltimore bans vendors from operating within 300 feet of a business that sells similar food.
The El Paso repeal comes after a group of vendors sued El Paso over the law in federal court for a violation of their constitutional right to earn an honest living. At issue in the suit was a simple question: is economic protectionism a valid use of the government’s police power?
Rather than protecting and serving the public in an evenhanded manner, government has gotten into the business of attempting to engineer outcomes by picking winners and losers. Winners get political favors and subsidies. Losers get regulated out of existence. Even though mobile vendors have been part of the American landscape for centuries, they remain politically disorganized. That makes them vulnerable to special interest groups that will attempt to use the government’s power to achieve their own narrow ends.
Rather than antagonizing its mobile vending community, El Paso seems to have now recognized that vendors are an important component of a thriving business culture. Indeed, cities seem to be dividing into two camps on this issue. Some, like Austin with its recent “Gypsy Picnic,” are celebrating mobile vendors. Others, like Chicago and Baltimore, are attempting to shut them down in an effort to protect brick-and-mortar restaurants from competition.
Inevitably, courts will be asked to decide whether this kind of naked economic protectionism is a legitimate use of the government’s police power. How they answer that question will be important to vendors, but it will be important to the rest of us, too.
Like all Americans, street vendors have the right to earn an honest living free from arbitrary and protectionist restrictions. They shouldn’t be run out of town just because they adopt a different business model than their brick-and-mortar competitors. The El Paso case marks the beginning of a nationwide street vending initiative being launched by the Institute for Justice. IJ will be defending the economic liberty of street vendors in cities across the country. By defending vendors’ freedom to work free from protectionist regulations, this nationwide initiative will protect the right of all Americans to live the American Dream.
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Matt Miller is the executive director of the Institute for Justice Texas Chapter, in Austin, and lead attorney on the El Paso vending lawsuit.