Lone rangers beset by government bullies, unite!

Christina Walsh Director of Activism and Coalitions, Institute for Justice
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We are raised to believe that our chance to succeed shouldn’t depend on our wealth, politics, race or zip code.

But every single day, special interests convince the government to use its power to take opportunity away from those with fewer resources and less power, in order to enrich themselves more. They lobby to limit the entrepreneur’s ability to start a business, prohibit families from getting their kids a good education, silence voters and activists, and deny property owners the right to keep what rightfully belongs to them.

It is time for the left and right to come together and end this assault on the vulnerable.

Consider Jestina Clayton. Jestina began braiding hair during her childhood in Sierra Leone; she brought this skill with her to Utah after fleeing from a civil war in her native land. A couple of years after starting her business she was told she needed a license to practice, which required her to spend thousands of dollars on 2,000 hours of cosmetology training — which had very little, if anything, to do with African hairbraiding. The law threatened to put her out of work. Fortunately, in response to a lawsuit, the law was struck down. Hairbraiders across the nation, however, face similar laws, which are often passed at the behest of industry insiders — in this case, the cosmetology industry — who want to protect themselves from the competition of new, independent entrepreneurs.

Lexie Weck is a 12-year-old with autism, cerebral palsy and mild mental retardation. Her mom, Andrea, wanted to send her to a private school where she could get the tailored attention she needed. Thanks to a state-funded scholarship program for children with disabilities, she could do just that. Lexie flourished in her private school. But in response to a lawsuit filed by the teachers unions — committed to protecting their public school jobs by eliminating the competition of private schools — the Arizona Supreme Court struck down the program.

Likewise, small businesses aren’t safe, especially when the special interest seeking to abuse government power is the government itself. The federal government, for example, tried to take Russ Caswell’s family-owned motel in Tewksbury, Massachusetts, through a process called civil forfeiture, without ever so much as alleging Russ had committed a crime, let along finding him guilty of any wrongdoing. Russ’ property was worth a million dollars and it carried no mortgage; teaming up together, federal and local law enforcement could keep the proceeds if they seized and sold the Motel Caswell. After spending about $100,000 out of his own pocket to defend what represented not only Russ’ business, but also his retirement savings, the Institute for Justice took on Russ’ fight and won. But an unknown number of innocent property owners without the resources to fight fall victim to the perverse incentives of civil forfeiture each and every day.

And the highly regarded Philadelphia artist James Dupree has now been forced to take on a private developer who has convinced the government to take and destroy his studio through eminent domain to replace it with a grocery store. Dupree turned a broken-down warehouse and garage into a unique art space in which he displays his own works and where he hopes to start a mentorship program so inner-city kids can learn to appreciate art. His resources pale in comparison to those of tax-hungry elected officials and land-hungry developers, but he will nonetheless continue his struggle to defend his rights.

Before now, individuals such as these were essentially lone rangers, disconnected from each other and from the information and resources they needed to fight their fights and to team up with others in their region who faced similar concerns. But now that has changed. Through a new project by the Institute for Justice called Liberty in Action, disparate and seemingly isolated individuals can now connect with one another and their neighbors to fight big government when it is fighting for private — not public — interests. American who once faced injustices alone now can better band together to defend themselves.

Now, more than ever, our chance to succeed won’t depend on our wealth, our politics, our race or our zip code. It will depend on our willingness to network and our resolve to succeed.

Christina Walsh is the director of activism and coalitions at the Institute for Justice.