A Parable of Shoe Stores and Bureaucrats

The following article by Linn and Ari Armstrong originally was published October 14 by Grand Junction Free Press.

The following discussion took place in an alternate universe very much like our own, but different in a few important respects. Any resemblance to real persons in our universe, living or dead, is purely accidental.

The scene is a coffee shop in a town called Great Junction, a town nestled between the Federal Monument, the Bookcliffs, and the Great Mesa. Ralph sits at a table, sipping his brew, sharing a quiet conversation with a few friends.

“Here’s how it went down,” Ralph began. “For three years my son John and I tried to open a shoe store over at the strip mall by Urban Market. We developed a great business plan and lined up our funding, and John finished up his degree in business while working in a shoe store on the side to earn experience in the industry.

“We did all the basic work in the first year. But then John reminded me we had to apply to the state Shoe Utility Commission, or SUC. I guess their job is to ensure that shoes meet their standards of utility, whatever that means. SUC required us to ask permission from the other shoe store in town, Shoe Central, before we could go into business.”

At this point Ralph’s friend Henry barged in, “Now hold on there, Ralph, you mean to tell me SUC wanted you to get the permission of your competitor to go into business? That can’t be right. That’s just insane! When I opened up my burger joint I didn’t have to ask permission from McDoogle’s! What’s next: are they going to make Cameron here ask permission from Orange Cabs to keep his own cab up and running?”

Cameron snorted at the absurdity.

Ralph took a breath, pushed up his shoulders, and continued, “Well, SUC uses pretty fancy language to describe asking permission. SUC says new shoe stores have to ‘show a public convenience and necessity’ before they’ll issue a shoe-store license, all to prevent ‘ruinous competition.’ And SUC was pretty keen on hearing Shoe Central’s claim that it already met the local demand for shoes.”

Henry could not contain himself. “‘Ruinous competition?’ What the hell does that mean? Most businesses compete for customers; that’s part of what makes them work hard to offer good service. Shouldn’t people have a choice about where they buy their shoes?”

After a pause Cameron asked, “So what happened next?”

Ralph continued, “At least SUC let us ask some local residents whether they’d benefit from a new shoe store in town.”

Henry started turning red in the face. “But wait a minute! Doesn’t a customer say he wants to shop at a store every time he walks in and spends some money? People say lots of things, but when they put their money on the counter, that’s what counts, right? How can a bunch of pencil-pushing bureaucrats predict where people want to shop? Isn’t that what the marketplace is for?”

“That’s what I always thought,” Ralph replied.

“So did SUC give you a permit to open a shoe store?” Cameron asked.

“SUC finally signed off on our shoe store, after forcing us to waste tens of thousands of dollars waiting around,” Ralph said.

Henry exhaled sharply.

“Unfortunately, Shoe Central then took the matter to court so a judge could make the decision.”

Henry jumped to his feet, spilling his coffee. “You mean, once you kiss the backsides of SUC bureaucrats for a few years, then you’ve got to start all over with a judge? What country did you say we’re living in, again?”

“Take a seat, Henry, it’s over,” Ralph said. “Amazingly, the judge also signed off on our store. But then SUC got to work again. SUC said we could carry only five types of shoes, and only in three sizes. Also, only people who lived within six blocks of the strip mall could shop at our store. SUC also dictated the prices we could charge for shoes. So we couldn’t charge more for better shoes, and if our stock piled up or dwindled we couldn’t raise or lower our prices. We’ll see if we can make a go of it.”

Henry said nothing. He sat hunched over, a single tear welling in his eye, staring at his cap with the emblem of his military service.

After a few moments of silence, a perky young lady walked up to the table and said, “I couldn’t help but overhearing, but I for one am grateful that SUC protects the consumer from the anarchy of the marketplace. Shoes are just too important to society to let just anybody sell them. Who would protect us from too many shoes and unfair pricing?”

The woman turned up her nose, spun on her Shoe Central high heels, and walked away. Ralph stared into his coffee.

Those of us living on the alternate side of the universe can only thank heaven that nothing as crazy as the SUC exists in our world.