The Poetry of Economic Liberty

There’s a surprising amount of great poetry about economic liberty; perhaps the most famous is Shylock’s comment in The Merchant of Venice, when Antonio recommends that the state confiscate Shylock’s property: “Nay, take my life and all; pardon not that: / You take my house when you do take the prop / That doth sustain my house; you take my life / When you do take the means whereby I live.” The Supreme Court quoted this passage in Adams v. Tanner, 244 U.S. 590 (1917), when it struck down a state law that outlawed employment agencies. While the government could certainly regulate such agencies to protect the public and to police against fraud or force, it could not “justify destruction of one’s right to follow a distinctly useful calling in an upright way.”

Other poets have celebrated economic dynamism; there’s Whitman’s evocative praise of American industry, and Sandburg’s ode to muscular Chicago; the New Deal’s insane restrictions on economic freedom led to Ogden Nash’s famous parody “One From One Leaves Two,” and also inspired a poem about the Shechter Poultry case by Mrs. Shechter herself.

But I’ve always most enjoyed Maya Angelou’s poem “Times Square Shoeshine Composition.” Although Angelou’s shoeshiner speaks ironically of capitalism, he is actually a prime example of the opportunity that free markets offer to people in his position, and Angelou’s warm celebration of his boastful pride in his work harmonizes remarkably well with Whitman’s mechanics and artificers. He really is a capitalist; an entrepreneur who has achieved a degree of self-reliance and pride that was, of course, totally denied to his ancestors. When he insists on the quarter and a dime instead of just a quarter, he brings to mind Frederick Douglass, who described in The Life And Times how he felt upon being paid for his first job after escaping from slavery:

I was not long in accomplishing the job when the dear lady put into my hand two silver half dollars. To understand the emotion which swelled my heart as I clasped this money, realizing that I had no master who could take it from me — that it was mine — that my hands were my own, and could earn more of the precious coin — one must have been in some sense himself a slave…. I was not only a freeman but a free-working man, and no Master Hugh stood ready at the end of the week to seize my hard earnings.

Angelou certainly has valid reason to be ironic in her poem, but that irony doesn’t cloud the deeper truth of the shoeshiner’s free independence — which brings me to the case of Ego Brown.

Brown ran a shoeshine stand in Washington, D.C. — except that city ordinances prohibited the running of shoeshine stands on the sidewalks. Other kinds of merchants could sell things on the sidewalk; just not shoeshiners. The rule was a holdover from the days of Jim Crow, when white shoeshiners generally worked indoors, and thus used economic regulations to exclude competition from black shoeshiners who worked outside. Represented by the Institute for Justice, Brown sued, and a federal district court struck down the law under the rational basis test: “There must be at least some plausible connection between the ‘uniqueness’ of a bootblack and the purpose of the law. To find this connection, we would have to ‘strain our imagination’ beyond that which is required under the rational basis test to justify prohibiting bootblacks from the use of public space while permitting access to virtually every other type of vendor. Even the minimal rational basis test does not require the court to muse endlessly about this regulation’s conceivable objectives nor to ‘manufacture justifications’ for its continued existence.” Brown v. Barry, 710 F. Supp. 352, 356 (D.D.C. 1989).

Brown, who’s still shining shoes today, is Angelou’s creation brought to life — every bit as independent and admirable as his poetic counterpart.

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