In Chicago, and all across the United States, we rely on the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things. We rely on inventive entrepreneurs who have a bright vision for the future. We rely on them to turn the wheels of the economy by creating new jobs for themselves and others, and sometimes even by creating entire new industries. And, in a humbler fashion, we rely on people who have trouble finding work to figure out a way to make a living and to be self-sufficient. We rely on them to use their talents to the best of their abilities to contribute to the life of our city.
In fact, we rely on entrepreneurs to make Chicago what it is. Chicago is a proud city of neighborhoods, and those neighborhoods take their character from the small, independent businesses that populate them: the sari shop on Devon, the German apothecary in Lincoln Square, the hipster bar in Wicker Park, the galleries in River North, the taquerias in Pilsen, the blues club in Woodlawn, the barber shop in Lawndale. Without those distinctive landmarks, without the reminders of a neighborhood’s ethnic roots, without those favorite gathering places, we could not tell one neighborhood from another.
Yet, in spite of the importance of small businesses to Chicago, there are myriad laws on the books that make it difficult—sometimes even impossible—for people to start new enterprises. The laws have been urged on legislators over the years, maybe to address a fleeting problem, maybe to help existing businesses tamp down the competition, maybe to make the urban environment conform to the fashion of the moment. And they have piled up in layers. The legal requirements are often completely unnecessary to protect the public, but they are never revisited by legislators who focus on passing additional regulations and generating more revenue from fines and fees. Instead of a navigable system designed to make sure businesses meet reasonable health and safety standards, the overlapping rules of the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois create a matrix that is so confusing and nonsensical that it often seems designed to stop entrepreneurs in their tracks.
When legal rules and requirements multiply, so do fees, forms and delays. The payments and paperwork required to start a business have gotten wildly out of hand. As a result, courageous, creative entrepreneurs—especially lower-income people who cannot afford to pay fees, much less lawyers—are discouraged from taking the risks that we rely on them to take. Or people decide to operate in the shadow economy, off the books, where they can evade detection but they cannot grow their businesses to their full potential and they do not contribute to their communities as public role models or taxpayers. Nevertheless, local officials keep interfering with Chicagoans’ freedom to start businesses. They treat entrepreneurs like a hazard that must be guarded against or like a cash cow for easy revenue. The gatekeepers keep designing new gates and they grow dependent on the tolls they collect.
Laws impeding entrepreneurship are harmful to Chicago’s local economy, but deeper than that, they are anathema to our deep-seated conviction that Americans can be whatever they want to be without having to seek the government’s permission first. The Illinois Supreme Court has stated in no uncertain terms that each citizen of Illinois has the “constitutional right to pursue his calling and exercise his own judgment as to the manner of conducting it,” and the lawmakers can restrict that right only when necessary “to protect the public health and secure the public safety and welfare.”1 Chicagoans may be sadly accustomed to paying fees to the local government to accomplish anything, but Chicagoans must battle the presumption that lawmakers have carte blanche when it comes to determining what work people can do and how they should do it. Neither the state legislature, nor state agencies, nor the Mayor’s office, nor the aldermen should have the power to choose who can set up a new business or how it should be run. Americans have the right to economic liberty-—earning a living in the occupation of their choice free from arbitrary or excessive government regulations.
In this report, we describe some of the excessive legal requirements that confront entrepreneurs in Chicago, focusing on onerous restrictions on the very occupations that most people expect to be open to people of all backgrounds and all income levels. We urge government officials, legislators and citizens to demand a repeal of these legal requirements, which constrain people’s futures without doing anything to protect the public’s health or safety. By truly opening Chicago to small businesses that are competing to serve their customers’ needs, we will ensure that our city of neighborhoods flourishes. We will free people to pursue their dreams and create new ways to maximize their talents. And we will have a city that really works.
Economic Liberty | First Amendment | Food Freedom | Private Property
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