Monks Are Triumphant. Are Taxi Drivers Next?

Last year I wrote about the Institute for Justice and their lawsuit on behalf of the monks of Saint Joseph Abbey of St. Benedict, Louisiana. The monks, you may recall, made beautiful handcrafted caskets, but labored under a ridiculous Louisiana law that required them to become a "funeral director" if they wanted to sell them. As I said then:

Louisiana law purports to require that anyone who is going to sell a casket has to jump through all same regulatory hoops as a full-fledged mortuary operation that embalms bodies. See, selling “funeral merchandise” (including caskets) means you are a “funeral director.” And to be a “funeral director,” you must be approved for “good moral character and temperate habits” by a funeral-related government entity [of course, that's in Louisiana, but still], complete 30 semester hours at college, apprentice with a funeral director for a year, pay an application fee, and pass an exam. But that’s not all. If you want your facility to sell caskets, it’s got to qualify as a facility for funeral directing, including a showroom and “embalming facilities for the sanitation, disinfection, and preparation of a human body.”

So, to sum up: Louisiana would like the monks of Saint Joseph to take college classes, intern with a funeral director for a year, pass an exam, pay a fee, be approved by a board, and convert part of their monastery into a professional mortuary in order to sell hand-crafted wooden caskets. If they don’t, they are guilty of a crime.

This was classic rent-seeking: a protectionist measure calculated to defend Louisiana's existing "funeral directors" from competition, so that they could continue to sell over-chromed ass-ugly caskets at an enormous markup.

At the time, I expressed skepticism that the ILJ would succeed in its suit.

Oh, me of little faith. ILJ won:

The Honorable Stanwood Duval of U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana ruled, “Simply put, there is nothing in the licensing procedures that bestows any benefit to the public in the context of the retail sale of caskets. The license has no bearing on the manufacturing and sale of coffins. It appears that the sole reason for these laws is the economic protection of the funeral industry which reason the Court has previously found not to be a valid government interest standing alone to provide a constitutionally valid reason for these provisions.”

I would have taken a sweet win like this and locked myself in my office for a couple of years to play Minecraft at my desk, which incidentally would have been a hand-crafted upside-down casket by that point. ILJ is made of sterner stuff, though. Via Amy Alkon, I see that ILJ is now crusading against another loathsome example of rent-seeking and crony-supporting pseudo-nanny-statism: taxi regulations in Milwaukee.

In 1991, the city of Milwaukee prohibited any new entrepreneurs from entering the taxi market. The city council imposed a hard cap of 321 taxis for the entire city, and made it so that the only way to get a taxi permit was to purchase one from an existing permit holder. As a result, today the city has just one taxi for every 1,850 residents (compared to 1 in 90 for Washington DC and 1 in 480 for Denver) and taxi permits have risen in price from $85 to $150,000—more than the average cost of a house in Milwaukee.

Why would the Milwaukee City Council do that? Who are they protecting?

As explained in an Institute for Justice study, Unhappy Days for Milwaukee Entrepreneurs, the city’s taxi law does nothing but funnel money to a small group of entrenched businesses at the expense of entrepreneurs, who lose out on opportunities, and at the expense of consumers, who face poor service and long wait times. One taxi owner, Milwaukee County Supervisor Joe Sanfelippo, owns almost half the city’s taxi permits. His brother Mike runs one of the city’s biggest taxicab companies, American United.

As always, the rent-seeking beneficiaries of protectionist regulation cite (albeit unusually unconvincingly) concerns for public safety:

One of the biggest permit holders is Michael Sanfelippo, who controls 162 permits. He says that when Milwaukee had more permits, no one could make a decent living and the quality of cabs and service suffered.

"This is not a cab town," he said.

Yes, that's the County Supervisor defending his government-granted monopoly. No, the newspaper didn't see fit to point that out.

Go get 'em, IJ.

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. says

    That's awesome. I wouldn't have thought they'd succeed either – usually there's some trivial safety concern that you can list, it's just that it's rarely even remotely proportional to the scale of the regulation.

    I would have loved to see the fig-leaf argument they were putting out about this regulation somehow being in the public interest – We have to have properly made caskets, otherwise the corpse might get a splinter that gets infected, and die a second time… uh, I mean, when the zombies rise from the dead, they're doing to be really pissed if they've been slumbering in uncomfortable caskets… uh, that is to say..

  2. says

    I think you mean it's the County Supervisor's brother who is the prime beneficiary of this racket?

    Still, that's important. Being as charitable as possible, the reporter couldn't verify that same last names meant they were brothers.

    Or maybe someone should drop him a line.

  3. perlhaqr says

    Dan, it was the brother speaking in that quote, but if I am reading the story correctly, the County Supervisor also owns a huge number of permits.

  4. Mike says

    I would have agreed with you at the time and given the ILJ little chance of succeeding.

    It seems to me the hardest thing about cases like this is getting a court to say anything besides "Yes its stupid, yes its protection of entrenched interests masquerading as consumer protection, but absent a constitutional violation, the legislature is within its discretion to do stupid things".

    Unless you live in a state which has constitutional protection for "economic liberty", aren't you pretty much screwed?