There’s no more poignant symbol of American childhood than the lemonade stand, evocative of long, lazy summer days and pie-in-the-sky entrepreneurial dreams.
It inevitably was a subject for a Norman Rockwell print, with a brassy kid confidently hawking cups for 5 cents each. If Rockwell were to update the image today, he might have to include an officer of the law nosing around the stand to ensure its compliance with all relevant ordinances.
In various localities around the country this summer, cops have raided and shut down lemonade stands. The incidents get — and deserve — national attention as telling collisions between classic Americana and the senseless pettifogging that is increasingly the American Way. There should be an easy rule of thumb for when enforcement of a regulation has gone too far: when it makes kids cry.
Setting up a lemonade stand has always been the occasion for early lessons about the importance of hustle and perseverance, and some business basics — like location, location, location. It shouldn’t be the occasion for dealing with the unreasoning dictates of The Man.
Police in Coralville, Iowa, a few weeks ago conducted a sweep and shut down three lemonade stands, some within minutes of their opening. The offenders had started their renegade operations the weekend of an annual bike ride across the state. The town requires vendors to have a permit during the days of the event. None of the perps did, including one four-year-old girl who shamelessly made $4 before police intervened.
One mother said she could only laugh when the police told her the cost of a permit was $400. Uncomprehending, her kids cried. They figured only the inadequacy of their handmade signs could have made the city’s law enforcement want to put them out of business.
A Coralville civic eminence subsequently explained that the ordinance was in place to protect the health of the bike riders, who are apparently robust enough to bike 472 miles but might be felled by six ounces of lemonade.
In McAllen, Texas, two kids were shut down and their grandmother threatened with a fine on similar grounds. Audaciously, the youngsters started selling lemonade for 50 cents a cup in a park without a health permit or licensed food handlers to prepare or serve their lemony libation. Hoping only to fund the upkeep of their two hermit crabs, these two children had stumbled into a murky world way over their heads.
In Midway, Ga., three girls were told they needed a business license, peddler’s permit, and food permit to set up a lemonade stand on their front lawn. It might have taken all summer just to navigate the bureaucracy necessary to begin selling the lemonade. The chief of police explained why she had to act to protect the public from the unauthorized sale of the unknown substance purporting to be “lemonade”: “We were not aware of how the lemonade was made, who made the lemonade, of what the lemonade was made with.”
Chances are that it was made of the usual dangerous cocktail of lemon juice, sugar, and water. If children — or their parents — aren’t to be trusted to prepare lemonade, presumably people lured by the prospect of a cool drink on a hot day can calculate the risks on their own and take their pocket change elsewhere if they feel safe only with professional-quality product.
Invariably, the parents of illicit lemonade-stand vendors protest to the authorities, “But they’re just kids.” That should be a clinching, self-evident argument. But not when an unbending legalism is ascendant, and there’s a law for everything. It’s in this spirit that we pat down children in the security lines of airports. People in authority are afraid ever to be caught rendering commonsense judgments.
For now, the lemonade-stand crackdowns are a bridge too far. They usually bring cries of public outrage and embarrassed backpedaling from officials. So belly up to the lemonade stand — while you still can.
— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2011 by King Features Syndicate