We Need More Undertakers

By Grant Davies

About a month ago I was fortunate enough to attend a book signing luncheon in downtown Chicago,  sponsored by the Heartland Institute, where I had the opportunity to hear Tom Palmer make a presentation on the topic of a new book that he edited, titled The Morality of Capitalism.  A small book full of big ideas, it's very readable and I recommend it highly.

During that speech*, Palmer (who, because I was a few moments late, was lucky enough to be seated next to me for lunch) referred to a term that I immediately knew would, at some point, be used when I got around to writing about what I consider to be a huge, but often ignored, problem. Even though I'm a know-it-all, somehow I always learn something fun and useful at these luncheons.

The term was "undertaker" and the etymology was explained as; "an old English phrase meaning; one who undertakes some activity or task", or as it might be expanded, a risk or a business. The more modern term is entrepreneur.

A reflection on my personal experience as a successful "undertaker" has led me to conclude that in today's environment, the seed of that undertaking could never have been planted, much less come to fruition. The barriers to starting a business as a floor broker on the trading floor of the exchange were so small as to be almost non-existent. You simply qualified for exchange membership (a minimal and relatively inexpensive task) and hung up your shingle.

Success or failure was in your hands, not the result of being able to comply with myriad regulations and large capital requirements. Government hacks were not allowed to divine how many brokers were "too many" or if a person was clever enough to get a good execution of the stock orders for their clients instead of just "filling and billing" them. The clients themselves, or lack thereof, would decide that. Today, sadly, it's a novel concept to many.

It was 1981 when I hung up our shingle and it was a simpler time in a much freer America. I was from an extremely modest financial background, barely escaped high school and scholastically unprepared for a formal college education. In other words, I was unintentionally perfect to test the theory that hard work and the drive to succeed were all that was necessary to achieve the American dream.

There was nothing particularly compelling about my story back then. I personally knew tons of people who did better than we did with even less going for them than I began with. If it wasn't the norm, it certainly wasn't unique. And back then, it never occurred to me that someday I would mourn the loss of such an expected environment.

But this isn't a piece about the past, it's about turning things around for the future. And hoping it's not too late for others to reach for the dream themselves. It's about our kids and our neighbors. It's about poor people not being poor anymore. It's not about hitting the target, it's about having a shot at it.

So let's not waste time talking about government job programs that never work. Instead, let's examine how we can get back to what does work and always has. Identifying the problem is always the first step in fixing it.

Barack Obama recently read a speech in Kansas that made the same points as I just did when he referred to his grandparents generation by saying;

"They believed in an America where hard work paid off, responsibility was rewarded and anyone could make it if they tried - no matter who you were, where you came from, or how you started out. These values gave rise to the largest middle class and the strongest economy the world has ever known."

Unfortunately the writer then descended into a predictable diatribe about corporate greed and the mythical notion that the government doesn't have sufficient regulatory power to keep those values alive today. As usual, and probably on purpose, they missed the whole point. In fact, they got it precisely backwards.

When it comes to job creation, over-regulation at all levels of government is the wrench in the works. And worse than that, it is the most harmful to our economic liberties. The loss of those liberties is the most under reported story in the history of a news media that should be the target of a reverse class action suit for malpractice. (A suit I just made up where there are many defendants and only a few complainants.)

Luckily, there is a group of lawyers at a place called The Institute for Justice  who not only understand the gravity of the situation, but have been suing various governments on behalf of ordinary citizens for decades in an effort to re-secure our rights. It's good to know that people with legal expertise are there to back us up in a world where we don't stand a chance on our own against a cabal of crony capitalists and power hungry politicians.

You and I can rely on our common sense to inform us that when two parties agree to engage in a legal activity for mutual benefit, no one - least of all the very government who is supposed to be defending our rights - should be allowed to interfere. But common sense alone won't prevail against governments who spend our own money to beat us back in court. Governments exist to defend rights, not to usurp them. It's more than a legal question, it's a moral imperative.

What are some of these cases, you ask? There are more than can be tallied that we will never know about, but the "merry band of litigators" (as George Will has dubbed them) are working on a few right now that I think will help highlight how deep the country has become mired in the muck of lost dreams and jobs that never got created.

One such case will make your hair stand on edge, but only because a state government is preventing a citizen from braiding it for you. It's Clayton v. Steinagel, a case about a lady who wants to braid hair for people who want her to do it for them.

The Institute describes the situation; "Jestina Clayton, a college graduate, wife, mother of two and refugee from Sierra Leone’s civil war has been braiding hair for most of her life.  Now she wants to use her considerable skills to help provide for her family while her husband finishes his education.  But the state of Utah says she may not be paid to braid unless she first spends thousands of dollars on 2,000 hours of government-mandated cosmetology training—not one hour of which actually teaches her how to braid hair.  In the same number of class hours, a person also could qualify to be an armed security guard, mortgage loan originator, real estate sales agent, EMT and lawyer—combined.  Such arbitrary and excessive government-imposed licensing on such an ordinary, safe and uncomplicated practice as hairbraiding is not only outrageous, it is unconstitutional."

So ask yourself; why the hell do we need permission from anyone to engage in a business anyway? And why doesn't Barack Obama, the first black President, stand with black people who want to work instead of receive government assistance? Politically it's a no brainer. But then again, maybe he doesn't have a brain.....oh never mind. I digress and this isn't a bash fest. Plenty of time for that in the next eleven months.

Then there is the case of Courtney v Goltz.  The Institute describes the case of government granted monopoly;

"Jim and Cliff Courtney have a plan to bring economic prosperity to their small community of Stehekin, located on the north shore of Lake Chelan in the center of the state.  Because Stehekin is accessible only by boat or plane, the Courtney brothers want to provide convenient ferry service across Lake Chelan so more people can enjoy the natural beauty and outdoor activities in the community their family has called home for four generations."

"Unfortunately, the state of Washington has sunk their plan.  A nearly century-old state law requires Jim and Cliff to obtain a certificate of “public convenience and necessity” from the state in order to pick up and drop off passengers along Lake Chelan.  This requirement, which was implemented to protect existing ferry providers from competition, has resulted in a government-imposed monopoly on Lake Chelan ferry service since the 1920s."    Read more..

All of us have our rights trampled upon when these laws are allowed to stand. Not to mention the jobs that never got created.

And then there are the cases of making people get a license to speak to others about sightseeing in Washington DC (and elsewhere) and the case of the dangerous Interior Designers. You might enjoy the videos concerning those cases I have added below.

So the point is that in all times and places our economic rights are just as important as our other rights if we are to remain a free country. But it's especially disconcerting to see the President talking about how greed caused lost jobs and how taxing the rich during a class war or borrowing more money to finance failed solar companies and the like will create new ones when a large part of the problem is that government is the biggest impediment to fixing the problem. And despite all the attention presidential wannabes give to them, it's not just big companies that are over-regulated, it's everyday folks like you and I too.

Mr. President, and all you other geniuses who are trying to get his job, try getting the hell out of the way. The country needs more undertakers, not fewer. We have to get back to leaving them alone or the only thing we will need an undertaker for is to arrange a cremation for the economy. From the looks of it, it's halfway to cinders already.

* A presentation almost exactly like the one I attended can be found here. It's an hour long, but if you watch it, it's quite likely to be the best hour you spend this month.

This article was originally published at WhatWeThinkandWhy on 1/10/12.


  1. One of the mottos on the Great Seal of the US is "Annuity Cœptis" meaning "God has approved this undertaking."

    Great post.

    God willing, we will win this election and fill the courts with people who hold dear the values of our great nation. This can be a great time of American rebirth.

  2. From a comment I left at your site for this post:

    Like you, I knew an America that was a lot freer than it is today. On good days I feel like the opportunity the I found (and seized) is still available to any that seek it today. On bad days, I doubt it. Keep up the great work.

  3. Thanks, I'll do my best.

    As to opportunity, I agree it still exists. It's the amount available today, relative to what it was and could be again, that I bemoan.

  4. I totally agree, Grant. And we as Americans that know an ideal (that is incredibly realistic and attainable and that this nation was governed by for most of its history) should never settle for less.


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