Magazine | April 25, 2016, Issue

The Lemonade Menace

Alexandra Scott (
Armed agents of the state protect us from children everywhere.

Alexandra Scott, who became famous as the founder of Alex’s Lemonade Stand, was an unusual girl in many ways. Before her initial treatment for neuroblastoma, physicians told her family that even if she beat the cancer, she would never walk. That news was delivered on her first birthday. She walked, and she did a great deal more than that.

Alex was born in Connecticut, but the Scotts lived in affluent Lower Merion, Pa., during most of Alex’s life. In the greater Philadelphia area, she had access to some of the finest medical care in the world, and she was fortunate enough (“fortunate enough” are strange words to write about a little girl who spent practically her entire life fighting cancer) to be from a family with some resources. Alex was, unlike most children her age, very much aware that this was not the case for all children, and so she launched, with her brother’s help, a lemonade stand, with the intention of using her profits to help other children with cancer.

They raised $2,000, which is a fair amount of money for a lemonade stand. One assumes that a few of those Main Line bankers and heiresses were paying $100 a cup. Once her story hit the headlines — we do sometimes forget that the press can be an awesome instrument for good — that $2,000 became $1 million, and that $1 million became a movement, with children around the country opening their own summer lemonade stands in tribute to Alex and, later, in tribute to her memory. Alex died of cancer at age eight.

It was inevitable that men with guns would shut this down.

As the idea of selling lemonade for charitable purposes caught on, police around the country and the turbocharged bureaucracies behind them found themselves faced with an unexpected public menace: outlaw lemonade. Alex’s Lemonade stands around the country were shut down by armed men at the behest of city health inspectors, tax collectors, licensing czars — and for-profit competitors. In Philadelphia, police were sent to shut down an Alex’s Lemonade stand for want of a permit and a hand-sanitizing station. (Philadelphia had 320 murders that year.) In the Hamptons, Jerry Seinfeld’s family was visited by police for selling lemonade to support a charity founded by the comedian’s wife. In Wisconsin, vendors resenting the competition demanded a stand be closed, and so it was. New York City insists that Alex’s Lemonade stands be licensed city concessions, like hot-dog stands; do treat your four-year-old to a bedtime reading of “Title 12 of the Rules of the City of New York,” which has 17 section headings and dozens of subsections, every jot and tittle of which must be satisfied.

Your toddler may need a lawyer.

Not all lemonade stands are philanthropic, nor should they be. Those that aren’t run into trouble, too. In Montgomery County, Md., children were fined $500 for operating an illegal lemonade stand outside the Congressional Country Club. In Texas, police shut down two little sisters’ lemonade stand for want of a $150 “peddler’s permit”; the town fathers agreed to waive the $150 fee — but insisted that the girls needed the health department’s sign-off first. In Iowa, men with guns were dispatched to stop a four-year-old girl from selling lemonade during a bicycle race. In New Castle, N.Y., city councilman Michael Wolfensohn dispatched armed men to a local park to stop children from selling unlicensed cupcakes and — horrors! — unregulated Rice Krispie treats.

The phenomenon is maddening in general, but it is particularly galling where the Alex’s Lemonade stands are concerned. Here is Jennifer Hughes of the Montgomery County, Md., Department of Permitting Services: “It wasn’t that we were the big hand of county government trying to come down and squash anything. . . . We were attempting to do what a government is charged with doing, which is protecting communities and protecting the safety of people.” Which is to say: We cannot let these people raise money for children with cancer — somebody might get sick!

We are ruled by power-mad buffoons.

After the men with guns became involved, the next step was almost inevitable: “virtual lemonade stands.” Instead of actually squeezing a few lemons and stirring in some sugar, the Alex’s Lemonade project has gone online and corporate. MobileCause, a maker of fundraising software, offered this advice:

Even if your intentions are good, . . . sometimes local laws and permits make the process a little more sticky and a little less sweet. Utilizing crowdfunding, really small things can add up to big things. By simply reaching out to their social and professional networks, each virtual fundraiser can raise an impressive average of $612 in donations. That’s not bad for a lemonade stand.

Big companies looking for a hipper alternative to the annual United Way fundraiser have annual Alex’s Lemonade events, selling T-shirts and swag and whatnot to raise money — often enormous amounts of money, which is a very good thing. Volvo donates $10 from every new-car sale to the cause, an amount that has added up to millions of dollars over the years. Children and others interested in getting involved set up online lemonade stands, shaking down friends, family, coworkers, etc. for donations, basically a widely distributed crowd-funding effort. These, too, can raise big money: A lemonade stand dedicated to cancer patient Maya Rigler raised $754, while the virtual version raised $380,384. In total, the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation has raised more than $120 million. That is all to the good.

But what about the lemonade?

One need not go the full Ayn Rand here (reading your toddler Atlas Shrugged may not technically be child abuse) to appreciate that Alex’s original proposition was a value-for-value exchange. It wasn’t just panhandling, or high-tech panhandling, which is what “virtual” lemonade stands, as well intentioned and helpful as they are, amount to. Alex’s story was moving not simply because she was a sympathetic, charismatic, cancer-stricken little girl who was seeking help for others in her situation but because she was all of those things and — here’s the critical part — willing to do something. The labor involved in starting a lemonade stand may be mainly symbolic, but it is critically important nonetheless. This is not a Randian point but a Lockean one. From the Second Treatise of Civil Government, chapter 5 (“Of Property”): “Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.” In philanthropy as in the primordial economic stew, it is by mixing our labor with what we perceive as valuable that we take ownership. One of the things I most admired about Alex’s community in Lower Merion (I was the editor of the local newspaper there years ago) was the controlling cultural norm that, even among such affluent people (median income: more than $100,000 per year), simply writing a check is insufficient to meet one’s obligations: One is expected to get off one’s ass.

Getting off one’s ass is a necessary thing, because the thing is that we cannot all live through philanthropy. Someone has to pull oil and coal and iron out of the ground, mill steel, and weld that steel into the shipping containers that make global commerce possible and allow modern nobodies to live lives that are in material terms far beyond the imagining of a Bourbon or pharaoh. (One of the upsides of this great material abundance is that we have lots of capital to throw at things such as subsidizing cancer treatment for other people’s children.) The culture of “Please give!” often is very good, but it can play only a minor role in a prosperous society. The culture of “Buy my lemonade for $1” rests on a very different set of assumptions. Who among us could look at Alex Scott and sneer like Elizabeth Warren: “You didn’t build this!”

Mikaila Ulmer, age eleven, is building it.

Like Alex Scott, she is in the lemonade business, selling a drink based on her grandmother’s recipe, incorporating Texas honey and flax seed. Like Alex, Mikaila has a larger purpose, too: Her BeeSweet lemonade supports local apiary businesses and is intended to raise awareness of apicultural issues. (She was twice stung by bees over a short period of time and became interested in the creatures. And they are interesting! T. D. Seeley’s 2010 Honeybee Democracy is one of the great books about the mechanics of social organization, in this case the ordering of insect society rather than human affairs.) Like Alex, Mikaila is very charismatic, which resulted in an appearance on the reality-television show Shark Tank, where she won a $60,000 investment, which she has since — a sixth-grader, this is — parlayed into an $11 million distribution deal with Whole Foods, the hippie-dippy-yuppie grocery chain co-founded by libertarian activist and Conscious Capitalism author John Mackey.

The subtitle of Mackey’s book is “Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business.” And the entrepreneurial spirit is, at its best, truly heroic, whether it proceeds along the conscious-capitalism model of Mikaila Ulmer’s enterprise or the more straightforwardly philanthropic model championed by Alex Scott. And if you want a miniature of what’s best and worst in American society, consider the image of these two little girls and their friends, dreaming of great things and then attempting to do them, while the pissant bureaucrats of Maryland and the lawmen of Texas and the czars of New York City with their 10,000 commandments stand between them and what they would do. A healthy society in reality requires both elements, of course, but something is for us here out of joint.

There is nothing wrong with simply raising money for a good cause. (And there is nothing at all wrong with selling good lemonade to make a buck, or a whole bunch of them.) That is fine, and good, and honorable, and admirable. But one of the lessons of Alex’s short life is that it is possible, even for children — even for desperately sick children — to do more, and to be more, through their labor and originality, which are, like the children themselves, gifts from God, to be cherished. If the city health inspector says otherwise, we should throw him feet first into the nearest deep and preferably cold body of water.

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