Who Will Keep Our Food Safe?

Any conversation about the superfluity of the Federal government or its legion of agencies will invariably turn to this question: “Who will keep our food safe?” It is as sure as Godwin’s law — except in this case, the fascists have, inexplicably, become the good guys.

Apparently, the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have a stellar and unblemished track record of keeping the populace safe from tainted food and dangerous medicines. It is a measure of the success of State propaganda that such a glaring untruth is so commonly seen as axiomatic and beyond question.

One of the great challenges for advocates of a truly free society is to present its vision of how certain functions of government would be replaced by the free market and voluntary cooperation. We are no less presumptuous than advocates of central planning if we dogmatically claim a comprehensive vision of how things will be in our “libertopia.”

As Murray Rothbard pointed out, the libertarian’s primary task is to:

… offer a few guidelines on how markets might develop where they are now prevented or restricted from developing; but he can do little more than point the way toward freedom, to call for government to get out of the way of the productive and ever-inventive energies of the public as expressed in voluntary market activity.

While we cannot be about the business of substituting one group of central planners for “our sort” of central planners, the nature of our argument behooves us to offer a vision of freedom — not what it must be, but what it could be.

As it pertains to the role of agencies like the FDA and USDA, we need look no further than the sustainable- and organic-food movement to see how the free market makes up for government failures; and it is no great leap to imagine the same market forces supplanting the public option altogether.

Perhaps ironically, it is luminaries of the modern movement toward “sustainable” food, generally confirmed statists, who furnish the crux of our argument.

There is a general consensus among those who are deeply devoted to such things that the USDA Certified Organic sticker is, at best, a limited indicator of the agricultural practices involved in the production of various foodstuffs. The USDA program is, like any government agency, bloated, inefficient and inconsistent. It is rife with corruption and requires expenditures of time and money that preclude many small farmers from participating.

As a result, many small producers are eschewing the USDA label as simply not worth it. Michael Pollan, an icon in the sustainable-food movement, consistently encourages people to forgo Certified Organic produce for local, reasoning that

It often is organic, even if not certified, and you can always ask the farmer. The cost of organic certification can also become burdensome for a small grower.

The farm that runs the CSA (community-supported agriculture) to which I belong is explicit in its disclosure of its growing methods, all the while explaining that it has not received “official” organic certification. In short, there seems to be a general consensus among advocates of organic and sustainable agriculture that the government seal of approval is limited in its value.

But simply buying everything from a local producer is a difficult proposition for the majority of us; time and geographic concerns prevent this as a viable option. How, then, can the average consumer be assured that he is buying food products that have been produced in a manner that is consistent with his ideals? In the face of the failure of the government’s program, as usual, the free market has provided a solution. And it is in this free-market solution that we see the germ of an idea that could totally supplant the government’s role in the inspection and regulation of agriculture and medicine — and do it more cheaply, efficiently and with far greater accountability.

In the absence of a reliable government organic-food regulatory agency, the market has provided several voluntary options. The Certified Naturally Grown program offers “a non-profit organization offering certification tailored for small-scale, direct-market farmers and beekeepers using natural methods.” It relies on voluntary participation and a peer-review system that is less expensive, less paperwork-intensive and more efficient than the USDA program.

Whole Foods Market has developed its own alternative for certifying certain production techniques for livestock and poultry, through a partnership with an animal-welfare nonprofit.

These are two options, but there are several others. All share a focus on voluntary cooperation between food producers and certifiers and greater accountability to the consumer, as they can’t hide their flaws behind the veil of government immunity. These programs, and others like them, are infinitely scalable, completely voluntary and represent a real challenge to the notion that “only the government can.”

The same organizational structure that has rendered the Certified Organic label obsolete could immediately step in to fill the void left by the absence of the FDA and USDA. Private, third-party certifiers could inspect livestock and produce and affix their seal of approval only when certain standards are met. That the reputations of the inspectors and the farmers are truly on the line would preclude much of the graft and inefficiency that is a constant feature of the current system. Certified, inspected produce would compete with uninspected produce for shelf space and consumer demand. I have focused on the grocery side of the equation, but the same general principles would apply to drug development and regulation.

As Rothbard continues,

No one can predict the number of firms, the size of each firm, the pricing policies, etc., of any future market in any service or commodity. We just know — by economic theory and by historical insight — that such a free market will do the job infinitely better than the compulsory monopoly of bureaucratic government.

–Stefano R. Mugnaini

How I Learned The Truth About The State

I’ll never forget my last visit to lovely Hinesville, Ga. For it was there that I learned a valuable lesson, one I shall never forget: In a police state, we’re all criminals.

Think about it: How many laws have you broken today? This week? This month? Have you changed lanes without a turn signal? Exceeded the posted speed limit? Hired a neighborhood kid to cut your grass and then paid him under the table? Engaged in commerce with someone who is in the country illegally? Bought lemonade from an unlicensed “dealer” in the form of an innocent child?

In Hinesville, I was accosted for “animal cruelty.” We were traveling to visit family in the southwestern part of the state. In the car were my wife, my two young daughters and our two dogs, Methuselah and Garibaldi.

The older of my two daughters had a rash, so we stopped at Walmart to get her some antihistamine cream. We emerged from the store, less than 20 minutes later, to be greeted by an animal-control officer and the stereotypical police officer, complete with a Napoleon complex and cheesy mustache.

You see, we left the dogs in the car, with the windows down and a dish of water to drink. A noble citizen watched us emerge from the car and promptly called animal control. An agent was dispatched to rescue our persecuted beasts.

I was informed that I was being charged with criminal animal cruelty, subject to appear in court at a later date. Apparently, the fact that my dogs were panting was proof positive that they were at death’s door. Never mind that they always pant, even in an air-conditioned house.

The officer informed me that I was going to have to take the dogs to the vet to be checked out before we would be allowed to continue on our way. I am reasonably sure that such a request is outside of their official authority, but I agreed to comply upon the premise that they would drop all charges when the dogs were given a clean bill of health. As I suspected, they balked at this idea.

I tried another tactic. I calmly explained to the animal-control officer that we were not from the area and asked if he could simply levy some kind of fine, rather than require a court appearance. This is when things got fun. “Animal cruelty is a warrant offense,” I was told. It requires a court appearance and carries the threat of jail time. Then I made a crucial mistake; I asked a logical question of a law-enforcement officer.

“At what point,” I asked, “was I in violation of the law? When I left the car? Five minutes later? Ten minutes?” I wanted a specific definition for the cruelty in which I was supposedly engaged.

He couldn’t answer, but the heroic policeman — let’s just call him “Vic Maldonado” — sprang into action. This innocent question left him no choice but to pull out both his baton and Taser and charge toward me. When I raised my hands as if to say, “I am unarmed, and that is an unnecessary show of force,” I was ordered to turn around and place my hands on the police cruiser. I asked why; no answer was given, except to radio for backup and claim that an officer had been “assaulted.”

To this day, I am glad that he didn’t take the additional step of searching my car, wherein were two legal, loaded pistols. I shudder to think what might have happened.

I was cuffed and escorted to the back of the squad car. I sat in the car for half an hour, while my wife and children sat and watched. When the backup arrived, I watched and listened through the open front window as “Maldonado” reenacted the confrontation. I was particularly interested in the part where I physically slammed the officer against the car and he somehow found the restraint to not shoot or Taser me.

Eventually, I was let out of the car and cited for disorderly conduct. The animal-control officer apologized for harassing me and promised to see to it that the judge dropped all animal-cruelty charges. He was clearly shell-shocked by the escalation he had witnessed. The fine for my “disorderly conduct” was $300, and the court date was set for 7:15 a.m.

This made it reasonably certain that, even if I chose to fight the charge, it would require an overnight stay, the hiring of a lawyer and the incurrence of expenses far exceeding the cost of the fine. I think this was not a coincidence but rather a calculated way of raising funds.

I intended to pay the fine in legal-tender pennies, but was dissuaded by my father-in-law, who informed me that a Georgia judge had held someone in contempt of court, subject to another fine, for just such an offense.

Melodramatic prison movies always use corny lines like “prison has a way of changing a man.” I didn’t experience a prison visit, but my brush with the law certainly changed me. The last shred of the veil of naïveté was lifted; the myth of “Officer Friendly” was banished forever. What was once merely a vague sense of distrust has given way to a much stronger feeling: I hate the state.

The irony in all this? My family and dogs sat in a hot car for more than an hour while the police harassed me. Apparently, animal cruelty can be perpetrated only by citizens, not by the soldiers of the crown.

–Stefano R. Mugnaini