Commentary: Illegal lemonade stands in your neighborhood? Your local government is on it!
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Commentary: Illegal lemonade stands in your neighborhood? Your local government is on it!

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Local authorities across the country are shutting down children's lemonade stands - and sometimes fining the families.

Local authorities across the country are shutting down children's lemonade stands - and sometimes fining the families. (Dreamstime/TNS)

It's an amazing time to be an American. The average American is wealthier, safer, and more comfortable than at any other point in our history. Things aren't perfect, though. Our suburban street corners are plagued by child criminals running illegal businesses.

But don't worry. Your friendly neighborhood bureaucrat is on it.

Local officials are hard at work shutting down and imposing large fines on lemonade stands and other child-owned businesses operating without all the necessary permits, licenses and inspections.

Rest easy if you live in Bethesda, Md. Country officials there shut down 6-year-old Xander Alpier's lemonade stand and fined his family $500. Fear not if you live in Denver. Your local authorities shut down Johnathan, William and Ben Knowles's lemonade stand after vendors at a nearby art festival complained that the boys were undercutting their prices.

Those little mobsters.

At least we can take solace knowing that there were no other problems for local authorities to deal with. Officials all over the country are fighting the good fight to shut down lemonade stands like those belonging to 7-year-old Sean Mulvaney in New York, 11-year-old Hayli Martenez in Illinois, 7- and 8-year old Zoey and Andria Green in Texas, and many more.

It's not just lemonade stands either. Local officials are cracking down on kids' illicit lawn-mowing, snow-shoveling, hot-cocoa-selling and cupcake-making businesses. In Normandy, Mo., for example, local authorities successfully stopped one little racketeer from shoveling his own grandmother's driveway.

So, don't worry. You're in good hands. That is, unless your kids want to start a small business.

The truth of the matter is that the sort of childhood entrepreneurship that, for so many of us, was a rite of passage is illegal in most states unless children comply with the full panoply of state and local regulation. In some states, operating a lemonade stand or other "food services business" without all the proper permits, licenses and inspections is a crime punishable by fees and jail time.

Other child-run businesses, like snow shoveling or lawn mowing, might not carry criminal liability, but rest assured that there is some regulation out there that makes them illegal unless you jump through all the right hoops.

And it isn't cheap. The necessary permits, licenses and inspections can cost hundreds of dollars. You don't need an MBA to figure out that start-up costs like that will eliminate the market for $1 lemonade.

Why are these crackdowns on innocent childhood entrepreneurship happening? They're overwhelmingly unpopular, so it's a safe bet that people are not telling their state and local authorities to enact anti-childhood-business laws.

No, what's happening is simple sloppy legislating, overzealous enforcement and in some cases corruption. Lawmakers draft vague laws to address any conceivable ill, and overzealous enforcers apply these against innocent conduct. Meanwhile, some of these laws are just designed to protect established businesses from competition.

Some recent comments by Maryland Delegate Anne Healey provide a window into the minds of these bureaucrats. At a recent hearing where the Maryland House Environment and Transportation Committee was considering a bill to legalize lemonade stands, she asked why local governments shouldn't have the power to regulate lemonade stands as they see fit. She also worried that children operating lemonade stands might be "doing something dangerous."

Her question was wrong from the start. The right question is: Why should any child be criminally liable for running a lemonade stand or other small business? Her concern for some unspecified and hypothetical danger reveals bureaucrats' real priorities: it's better to outlaw everything than to risk someone blaming us when they get hurt in some unknown way.

The result is that one day we wake up and find that something we took for granted - like running a lemonade stand - is now illegal, and we never had a say in it.

There is some good news, at least for lemonade stands. Sixteen states have passed laws legalizing children's lemonade stands. Hopefully more will follow suit and legalize other child-run businesses.

The freedom that lets many of us start childhood businesses is one of the best things about life in America. Let's not allow runaway bureaucrats to take that away.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

GianCarlo Canaparo is a legal fellow in The Heritage Foundation's Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies.

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