Since I have been travelling in Australia, for nearly 4 months now, there has been scarcely a day I have not been accosted by someone on the street, attempting to inform me of a great product, trip or religion I’m missing out on.

I’m usually friendly, but it’s extremely difficult to get anything by me. One young lady who was performing her best pitch for party bus tickets could not help but break down laughing when seeing my unimpressed expression. I told her I’d have to think about now just because it was a valiant effort. I moved on with a smile, after all, she’s just doing her job

After the 99th time of politely declining street sellers, it becomes more than tiring. I’ve bumped into pretty much every kind: Christian evangelists, Krishnas, Scientologists, 20 or so travellers trying to sell me trips I’ve already been on, Chinese restaurant attendants (speaking to me in Chinese for some reason) and foot massage therapists, and I’ve been getting progressively less friendly with each one.

For a while I settled for blurting out ‘no thanks’, then devolved to a shake of the head. I have lied and said I’m busy or late. Now I am quite adept at spotting them well in advance and diverting my path accordingly. Sometimes the more determined ones will follow me and I have to take evasive action. One time I happened to catch eye contact and I, jokingly (in my mind), covered my eyes and walked in a different direction. Hopefully he understood and found it funny, I didn’t look back to find out.

Yes, I know it’s rude! They’re only doing their jobs after all, but it’s happening with such frequency that I’m finding it less reasonable. Every time it happens the more I feel like they’re unjustly interrupting my own important task, even if it’s going to 7 Eleven for a $1 coffee (which is the bomb, by the way). What right do they have to fling themselves into my day, jarring my thought process? I should not have to feel guilty for being rude when it is they who are encroaching on my actions – it is my street, too.

Right, they are only doing their jobs, but is that any excuse? Nuremberg?

Facetiousness aside, we should really unpack this: where does the right to sell stuff on the street come from?

Obviously this is an another example of the tragedy of the commons. With no outright owner, rules governing streets cannot be enforced with any efficient or consistency. The legislator cannot prevent people from selling on the street, provided they do not set up a stall 1, without violating right of free speech. However, normal walking citizens are having their days ruined by these sellers they did not consent to. There is no clear cut way to legislate this without someone missing out.

Considering this I have no problem condemning street sellers as a bunch of statist opportunists. No private company would allow their street to be overrun by them, bothering their potential customers. Yeah, you’ll sometimes see people in the mall trying to sell you satellite TV subscriptions, but they’re not marching around deliberately blocking your path. Street sellers are in the same category as the military industrial complex and big oil: special interests that take advantage of the dysfunctionality of the state.

If shops were allowed to own the street area in front of them, they would not allow any behaviour that would deter people from the area. You would not see random people walking around carrying signs and handing out leaflets. It’s feasible we’d see sellers leave the shop and come up to pedestrians. It is their property and would therefore be legitimate. But the incentive would be to be find the right balance between not being noticed and being belligerent.

To eliminate it totally, one could conceive of a privately owned street which has rented estate. Renters would have to agree to abide by street rules, which may include bans on street sellers. It would depend on the type of street and the culture it attracts, but it would be flexible in accordance to customers’ preferences.

At the moment, streets operate almost by the law of the jungle. Walking through town is an all against all battle for space. The exceptions are when the city council have implemented blanket laws against street sellers. But like any law governing the commons, it creates conflict. Should we also ban begging, which is after all a kind of soliciting?

An apparent happy medium is granting licences to sell on the streets. But as with all occupational licensing, this only serves to benefit the larger businesses that can afford them. In Cambridge, the perennial street sellers are the students selling punting trips 2. This is the city’s cash cow, so they can afford it, but why should they be granted an privilege over a freelance photographer handing out business cards? They are equally legitimate businesses, it’s only because the photographer hasn’t jumped through as many hoops that he isn’t allowed to do his own soliciting. Licensing is has always been arbitrary and only serves to create privilege.

There is no way the state can hope to solve this problem – just privatise the streets already.

1.Then again, what is wrong with that exactly?
2.Dear students selling punting trips in Cambridge: please leave me alone. I live here.