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Tupelo City Council is wrong to regulate food trucks to protect restaurants

FOOD TRUCKS: Food trucks set up in Jackson in 2017. Photo by the Mississippi Food Truck Association.

The Tupelo City Council says if you like your food trucks, you can keep your food trucks, as long as they are compliant with proposed regulations.

The primary reasoning for the regulations is hardly legal. Did the council cite salmonella outbreaks among Tupelo's food trucks? No, because food trucks have to be inspected and meet the same state standards as brick and mortar restaurants. Did the council say that it was acting to prevent the trucks from clogging up roads and parking lots? Only in passing.

At least several members of the council were honest about their misguided policy proposal.

City Councilman Willie Jennings told the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal that "I just want to make sure the established businesses are protected."

Another city councilman, Markel Whittington, told the same outlet "I think we have to protect some of our taxpayers and high employers."

The way the council would accomplish this is by banning food trucks from setting up within a certain radius of an existing restaurant. Since there are more than 160 restaurants in Tupelo, that would severely limit where food trucks set up. If the trucks are also prohibited from city property, these proposed regulations might largely banish food trucks from Tupelo's city limits. 

Shadrack White, the director of the Mississippi Justice Institute, has already sent the city a letter warning them of a possible lawsuit if the regulations proceed. White cited an example of a similar distance regulation for food trucks from existing restaurants was struck down in Baltimore by a Maryland state court.

The reason the council cited is not a legitimate reason for regulation such as public safety, but is good, old fashioned corporatism. The local restaurants don't want the competition and are using the levers of power to get it crimped. 

The irony is that Republicans are often considered the champions of limited government, but not in this case. Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton, a Democrat, is opposed to the regulations. The Republican-dominated City Council supports them. It's a lesson that party labels don't always accurately explain the beliefs of policymakers.

It isn't the role of government to make sure existing businesses are protected from competition. Government is there to protect rights to property and life that are the foundation of any civil society and ensure a level playing field for all businesses and citizens. When government intervenes using its regulatory powers on behalf of one party, it sets up a precedent that policymakers are available to the highest bidder.

These businesses, protected from competition, are often corrupted because they become less competitive as they focus on acquiring more privileges from government, a term known to economists as rent-seeking behavior.

There is a great example of this in Jackson.

The taxi companies in the capitol city have been protected for years by onerous regulations that prevent new companies from taking root there with ridiculous requirements and mandated, exorbitant prices. Now that ridesharing services have arrived, the existing companies are feeling the strain.

For years, the taxi cartel has existed without any competition and was more adept at keeping competition out with the status quo. When competition finally arrived, these businesses were ill-equipped to deal with the changing times.

Tupelo needs to say no to corporatist regulations on food trucks, because that isn't the role of government and isn't going to do the existing businesses they seek to protect any favors.

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