When we hear about yet another intrusion of government in our lives—such as the regulation of food trucks in Canadian cities—we often just shrug and dismiss the regulation of the nanny state as an inconvenience or an annoyance. But the nanny state is not merely posing an inconvenience with its regulations based on the logic that “the government knows best.” The nanny state regulations violate our right to choose how to live our lives; therefore, they are immoral.

Take the example of the food truck industry in Canada. City governments control it, and in many places the consumers have been “protected” against food trucks until recently. For example, in Montreal they were banned altogether for more than 60 years and are operating there now on a pilot basis. The city government appointed a committee to determine which trucks would be licensed, on the criterion of reflecting Montreal’s “gourmet image” and of “added value to existing supply.” A city councilor was quoted as saying: “We don’t want traditional pretzels, with onion rings, hot dogs, hamburgers and chicken wings. We want something more refined.” One coffee truck was denied a license on the grounds of not being “gourmet enough” and of the abundance of coffee shops downtown. One objector to food trucks, a representative of the restaurant industry in the city, argued that people should buy their food and coffee from existing restaurants.

Besides deciding who gets a food truck license, the city governments also regulate where the trucks can operate, when they must close, what type of food they must serve, and even from what part of the truck to serve. In Toronto, new trucks are only allowed to operate in a few parks, so as not to pose competition to existing restaurants. In Vancouver, the city hall dictates that food truck fare must be nutritionally balanced—for example, fish and chips must be served with a salad—and must approve any major menu changes. The city council has also determined that Vancouver’s downtown is saturated, and all new trucks are sent to outlying areas.

Presumably, all these regulations of the food truck industry—or any other industry (for another incredible example, see the story about hair salon regulations in Quebec)—are put in place by the government as the concerned nanny who wants to protect everyone. The consumers are allegedly protected against unrefined and nutritionally “unbalanced” foods such as hot dogs and onion rings, and restaurants and food trucks are protected against too much competition. However, such “protection” is immoral because it violates citizens’ individual rights. For us to survive and flourish—to live the best possible, happiest life we can—we must be free to choose our own values. If we cannot choose a career we want, to run a business we want, to sell and buy foods we want because of government regulations, we are not achieving our values.

The pre-requisite of achieving values and happiness is freedom. It is the government’s job—its only proper function—to protect that freedom by recognizing and enforcing individual rights. By adopting the role of the nanny, it is doing exactly the opposite.  We do not need “protection” against our own choices or competition. The best “regulation” of business and the best protector of consumers is the free market. The rejected coffee truck applicant in Montreal, Chrissy Durcak summed it up in her comment (quoted in the National Post article in the link above): “The market will regulate itself. If there is a good food truck, there will be lineups no matter where it is. People will find it … The city shouldn’t be trying to mandate what is gourmet or not.”

The free market, in which the government’s only role is to protect individual rights against force or fraud, is also the best protector against unscrupulous businesses that are trying to sell subpar or tainted goods. Such companies will either fail to get customers or be prosecuted for fraud by the government, or both, and go out business.  The free market encourages competition, which gives consumers the most choice. Competing companies keep innovating, and both consumers and business benefit from the value being created.

To make markets free, we must fire the immoral nanny state and restore the only proper role of the government: protection of individual rights.

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Jaana Woiceshyn teaches business ethics and competitive strategy at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, Canada. She has lectured and conducted seminars on business ethics to undergraduate, MBA and Executive MBA students, and to various corporate audiences for over 20 years both in Canada and abroad. Before earning her Ph.D. from the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, she helped turn around a small business in Finland and worked for a consulting firm in Canada. Jaana’s research on technological change and innovation, value creation by business, executive decision-making, and business ethics has been published in various academic and professional journals and books. “How to Be Profitable and Moral” is her first solo-authored book. Visit her website at profitableandmoral.com.

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