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Jewish World Review Sept. 20, 1999 /10 Tishrei, 5760

Thomas Sowell

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What's wrong with big government -- A TEXTBOOK EXAMPLE of what is wrong with big government can be found in California's state capitol in Sacramento. A bill was recently stampeded through the state senate, without committee hearings, to prohibit cities from approving permits for any store whose size exceeds 100,000 square feet, if 15,000 square feet or more of that was devoted to food and medicines.

This one bill has managed to incorporate and demonstrate a variety of corrupt political practices. First of all, it had to be rushed through without any public discussion, because allowing any discussion would have exposed the raw fraud of the arguments for it and the special-interest pandering behind it. Second, it was a classic case of state government destroying the ability of local governments to use their own judgment, just as the federal government destroys the ability of both state and local governments to perform their functions.

Third, it shows that the power to license, ostensibly for the benefit of the public, is the power to destroy for the benefit of special interests.

Finally, and perhaps worst of all, it shows how demonizing is used politically to justify the unjustifiable.

According to the sponsor of this bill, Assemblyman Richard Floyd, it is aimed at stopping "economic fascists" who "have already wiped out all of our downtown businesses," including "independent clothing stores, hardware stores, appliance stores, music stores." Assemblyman Floyd says that he is now "worried about grocery stores, particularly the small guys in my area."

Just what is an "economic fascist"? In today's political climate, it is unnecessary to define such loaded terms. If it sounds bad, that is sufficient for the purpose -- which is to demonize as a prelude to destroying.

Ironically, what Assemblyman Floyd is doing is itself the hallmark of the fascists, who controlled their economies by having government decide who is to survive economically, instead of leaving that question to the consuming public.

In this case, the consumers have chosen to buy from huge supermarket-style department stores with all kinds of merchandise under one roof -- places like Wal-Mart and Costco. Such mega-stores are able to operate at lower costs and sell at lower prices, attracting customers away from smaller stores with more limited ranges of merchandise, whose costs and prices are higher.

If the public is happy, why is Assemblyman Floyd unhappy? Because the losers do not go quietly, whether these are stores that cannot compete with the giants or labor unions that have failed repeatedly to get Wal-Mart and Costco employees to join. Given the dependence of the Democrats on labor union support, this bill is an obvious attempt to hobble non-union companies.

Environmentalists are also unhappy, ostensibly because of "pollution and traffic" generated by big stores. But would there be any less traffic and pollution if the same people who shop at Wal-Mart and Costco shopped at numerous smaller stores instead? It would take more time and more traffic, generating more pollution.

Like so many things said by environmentalists, this makes no sense if you take them seriously and at face value. However, it makes perfect sense if you realize that environmentalism is largely mushy leftism hiding behind a facade of concern for the environment.

This petty and vindictive bill is a classic example of what the Constitution of the United States prohibited -- singling out particular targets for legislative punishment. If a legislature can arbitrarily ban stores they don't like, they can similarly punish any individual or organization without a trial, much less evidence or proof of anything. The whole point of constitutional government is to prevent arbitrary exercises of power.

Unfortunately, politicians and judges across the country have been eroding constitutional guarantees and enhancing their own clout in the process.

Unpopular institutions and groups have been, for all practical purposes, presumed guilty until proven innocent -- first in such antitrust laws as the Robinson-Patman Act during the 1930s and, more recently, in anti-discrimination laws and laws on child abuse.

If all it takes are some demonizing words like "economic fascist" to get around the Constitution, then we are in big trouble -- and not just economically. What is done to Wal-Mart or Costco today can be done to anybody else tomorrow.


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©1999, Creators Syndicate