Free Market

The Crime of a Commercial Exchange

When Jestina Clayton was threatened with legal action for braiding hair, bureaucrats made clear that her supposed crime was that she had been braiding hair for pay. Think about that for a moment: it was legal for her to braid hair for free, but as soon as money became involved, she was being required to spend 2,000 hours in cosmetology school, seek the state’s permission, pay fees, and meet other requirements.

Why does the exchange of a few dollars in this simple transaction make an otherwise legal action illegal?

Of course, this is not an issue only in regards to hair braiding. Most occupational licenses involve a form of labor that can freely be done without pay, but which becomes criminalized when money is involved—unless the government has, with issuance of a license, given its blessing.

You’re free to give your spouse or friends a massage for free, but if you begin accepting money in exchange for your services without obtaining a license, you are suddenly committing a class A misdemeanor. You can purchase a cow in conjunction with your neighbors, take care of it, and then divy up the milk, but if you exchange money in the process it is an illegal “cow share” program. Perhaps your handy neighbor can fix your sink or rewire your kitchen lights, but if you pay him in the process you’re turning him into a criminal. A woman can do her friends’ nails all fancy and for free, but she better not think about accepting money without first going to hundreds of hours of school, paying a fee, and requesting an official government permission slip.

This could be a very long list, and it ranges from common actions such as cutting hair, to controversial ones such as prostitution. (Fornication is actually illegal in Utah, but prosecutors are unwilling to see the law challenged and therefore do not enforce it, making it effectively legal.) Suffice it to say, there are many things that you can legally do for free, that would be illegal to do as soon as money changes hands in the process.

If an action violates one’s life, liberty, or property, then by all means criminalize it—and enforce the penalties. But conditional criminality, such as with the case of a service being compensated monetarily or not, is a preposterous notion that should be rejected by any freedom-minded individual. The government only legitimately exists to protect people, not impose economic protectionism.

Commercial exchanges of services aren’t inherently criminal, just as free exchanges are not. What matters is the actual action. Killing somebody is wrong, whether you’re doing it of your own volition, or as a hired hitman. Stealing a vehicle, whether for the thrill or as part of a car smuggling ring, is likewise a criminal action. When a violation of rights occurs, it doesn’t matter if money was paid or not—wrong is wrong, regardless of incentives or compensation given.

The same holds true in the inverse. If an action does not violate somebody’s rights, then it does not matter whether money was exchanged. If two people engage in a commercial transaction based upon mutual consent, whether for construction services, cosmetology care, medical consulting, or any number of other issues, then the action is not criminal and the government’s prohibition is illegitimate.

Utah must work towards informed consumerism, enabling individuals to make their own choices and reap the consequences of that process, whether good or bad. And the government that rules over them must refrain from threatening fines and jail time for simply compensating another individual for services rendered.