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Transatlantic Blog

The Burkean lessons of children's lemonade stands

Every year when the air turns warm and green leaves bud, the same story seems to repeat itself: A motivated young person opens a lemonade stand, only to have police or a local zoning authority close it down because it lacks a business license. This holds true across the transatlantic sphere, from North America to Europe, summer after summer, like a nightmarish version of Groundhog Day.

The most recent case of prominence took place in London last month. Police fined a five-year-old girl £150 (about $195 U.S.) for “trading without a permit,” because she sold lemonade at £1 for a large glass, or 50p for a small. “She sobbed all the way home and was telling me: ‘Dad, I’ve done a bad thing,’” said her father, Andre Spicer, a business professor at City University London.

Tower Hamlet officials canceled the fine, but it had already left an indelible impression on the young girl. When other venues offered to let her set up her stand, she told her father, “No. It's too scary.”

“She was proud of selling it, and this really soured the experience,” he said.

Sadly, such stories have multiplied to the point that they threaten to become their own subgenre of literature. The United States, considered the bastion of the free market, could populate the section by itself.

Last year, the Orange County Health Department required 10-year-old Annabelle Lockwood to obtain a $3,500 permit or they would close her “gourmet lemonade stand.” (She was able to raise the gargantuan amount thanks to a GoFundMe page.)

In Discovery Bay, California, last month a grown man approached a young girl’s lemonade stand 10 minutes after she opened and demanded to see her business license. When she couldn’t produce one, he threatened to call 911 (certainly a public emergency of the first order). Her father, Richard LaRoche, said, “She was so scared that she came home crying and sobbing and said she didn’t want to go to jail.”

Thus did the government’s system of permits, zoning, and regulatory requirements – as well as an imprudently uniform application of the law – teach young children to associate entrepreneurship with pain, motivation with punishment, and striving for success with unreasonable barriers.

“You’re the reason kids lack ambition nowadays,” LaRoche wrote to his daughter’s antagonist.

These cases illustrate a broader point for adults: Licensing requirements often needlessly bar people from employment, and the ones most affected as the most marginalized: the young, the inexperienced, minorities, and the disadvantaged.

There are, however, police forces that respond in a much different and more helpful fashion:

  • In Kansas City this summer, three-year-old Hannah Pasley opened a lemonade stand so that she could purchase a police costume. When they heard about it, 50 police officers patronized her stand, and she earned the money in no time;
  • Nine-year-old Angel Reyes opened a lemonade stand in Las Cruces, New Mexico, this spring to raise money for his cancer-stricken grandmother. He raised $50 in sales and earned a $1,000 donation from charity. Local police came – not to arrest or ticket him – but to give him a permit to operate his business legally. They proceeded to purchase his product and wish him well; and
  • Last month in the northeastern Pennsylvania town of Tunkhannock, eight-year-old Owen Shylkofski opened a lemonade stand to raise money for his neighbor, whose house had burned down. When someone stole the $50 he raised, police donated to make up the lost money – and let him wear a real policeman’s hat during their visit.

These children will have a much different outlook on work, charity, society, and government.

They now tasted the fruits of work. As AEI President Arthur Brooks has noted in the New York Times, and elaborated in his books including The Conservative Heart, “The secret to happiness through work is earned success.” They have felt a great psychological motivation to continue being productive and meeting the needs of others.

“We learn through doing,” Spicer wrote. “Making a stand is a great opportunity for kids to share their interests, build confidence, and contribute to our communities.” These children have become happy through service and learned that work is a gift they can handle.

Rather than turning to their parents or the government, they have learned to work for the things they want – whether for personal gain or, frequently, for charitable causes. The proceeds often go directly to another individual or private charity, teaching them that charity is a personal concern carried on by caring citizens and intermediary institutions like churches and philanthropies. When future calamities strike, they will turn to personal initiative, not the state, to remedy them.

This teaches them “to be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society," which Edmund Burke called "the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed toward a love to our country and to mankind."

Another point that is too often overlooked: These lemonade stands do not merely serve the children who operate them; they benefit the adults who do business with them. These child entrepreneurs experienced more than a touch of sentimental charity from their neighbors, and true solidarity between generations. They serve their patrons, who remember doing the same thing when they were younger. When these children grow up, they will give back to the next generation, continuing the cycle of charity. In the process both generations discover, in Burke’s masterful phrase, that society is “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”

And the children encouraged by their local police certainly have a different view of law enforcement than their less fortunate counterparts, leading to greater social trust and cohesion. "If laws are their enemies," Burke wrote to Charles James Fox, "they will be enemies to laws." For citizens to exercise the kind of delegation "of the greatest trust which they have to bestow" upon elected officials, who will exercise their own judgment rather than merely rubber stamp public opinion, they must trust their representatives' wisdom and benevolence. 

If community leaders wish to teach their children these lessons, or merely to avoid the spread of embarrassing viral stories of police overreach, states, municipalities – and parliaments – may wish to consider a piece of commonsense legislation enacted in Utah this March. S.B. 81 forbids any municipality from requiring a vendor’s license or permit of a business operated by anyone under the age of 18. The nub of that law could become a fitting example of what happens when good ideas cross the Atlantic.

In 2011, when she was Minister for Women and Equalities, Theresa May proposed spending £2 million to train 5,000 women to mentor female entrepreneurs. One can hardly think of a better destination than to visit the young people operating these stands.

At a minimum, public officials can stop closing them down and let a healthier view of work, charity, and society blossom in the next generation.


Rev. Ben Johnson is a senior editor at the Acton Institute. His work focuses on the principles necessary to create a free and virtuous society in the transatlantic sphere (the U.S., Canada, and Europe). He earned his Bachelor of Arts in History summa cum laude from Ohio University and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. 

Rev. Johnson was a panelist at the 2016 CPAC. His writings have appeared in The (UK) GuardianHuman EventsThe Stream, Real Clear Policy, Aleteia.org, Conservative ReviewThe Daily Caller, and have been cited by National Review, CBS News, and Fox News. 

He was managing