Sunday, April 04, 2010

Individual Rights Versus Food Regulations

By Diana Hsieh

In her essay "Man's Rights," Ayn Rand observed:

A "right" is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man's freedom of action in a social context. There is only one fundamental right (all the others are its consequences or corollaries): a man's right to his own life. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action; the right to life means the right to engage in self-sustaining and self-generated action--which means: the freedom to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of his own life. (Such is the meaning of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.)

The concept of a "right" pertains only to action--specifically, to freedom of action. It means freedom from physical compulsion, coercion or interference by other men.

Thus, for every individual, a right is the moral sanction of a positive--of his freedom to act on his own judgment, for his own goals, by his own voluntary, uncoerced choice. As to his neighbors, his rights impose no obligations on them except of a negative kind: to abstain from violating his rights.

The right to life is the source of all rights--and the right to property is their only implementation. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life. The man who produces while others dispose of his product, is a slave.

Bear in mind that the right to property is a right to action, like all the others: it is not the right to an object, but to the action and the consequences of producing or earning that object. It is not a guarantee that a man will earn any property, but only a guarantee that he will own it if he earns it. It is the right to gain, to keep, to use and to dispose of material values.
(Just to be clear, the "right to life" doesn't mean forcing women to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term!)

Are our individual rights respected and protected by government in America today? Not by a long shot. They are systematically violated by government interference in our lives and in the economy. The rights to property and contract are violated as a matter of course in banking, finance, business, education, medicine -- and yes, in agriculture too.

For a taste of how governments -- local, state, and federal -- interfere with our rights to production and voluntary trade in agriculture, I strongly recommend Joel Salatin's classic essay, Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal (PDF). For example, consider Salatin's discussion of the government's regulations of on-farm processing:
I want to dress my beef and pork on the farm where I've coddled and raised it. But zoning laws prohibit slaughterhouses on agricultural land. For crying out loud, what makes more holistic sense than to put abattoirs where the animals are? But no, in the wisdom of Western disconnected thinking, abattoirs are massive centralized facilities visited daily by a steady stream of tractor trailers and illegal alien workers.

But what about dressing a couple of animals a year in the backyard? How can that be compared to a ConAgra or Tyson facility? In the eyes of the government, the two are one and the same. Every T-bone steak has to be wrapped in a half-million dollar facility so that it can be sold to your neighbor. The fact that I can do it on my own farm more cleanly, more responsibly, more humanely, more efficiently, and in a more environmentally friendly manner doesn't matter to the government agents who walk around with big badges on their jackets and wheelbarrow-sized regulations tucked under their arms.

OK, so I take my animals and load them onto a trailer for the first time in their life to send them up the already clogged interstate to the abattoir to await their appointed hour with a shed full of animals of dubious extraction. They are dressed by people wearing long coats with deep pockets with whom I cannot even communicate. The carcasses hang in a cooler alongside others that were not similarly cared for in life. After the animals are processed, I return to the facility hoping to retrieve my meat.

When I return home to sell these delectable packages, the county zoning ordinance says that this is a manufactured product because it exited the farm and was reimported as a value-added product, thereby throwing our farm into the Wal-Mart category, another prohibition in agricultural areas. Just so you understand this,remember that an on-farm abattoir was illegal, so I took the animals to a legal abattoir, but now the selling of said products in an on-farm store is illegal.

Our whole culture suffers from an industrial food system that has made every part disconnected from the rest. Smelly and dirty farms are supposed to be in one place, away from people, who snuggle smugly in their cul-de-sacs and have not a clue about the out-of-sight-out-of-mind atrocities being committed to their dinner before it arrives in microwaveable, four-color-labeled, plastic packaging. Industrial abattoirs need to be located in a not-in-my-backyard place to sequester noxious odors and sights. Finally, the retail store must be located in a commercial district surrounded by lots of pavement, handicapped access, public toilets and whatever else must be required to get food to people.

The notion that animals can be raised, processed, packaged, and sold in a model that offends neither our eyes nor noses cannot even register on the average bureaucrat's radar screen -- or, more importantly, on the radar of the average consumer advocacy organization. Besides, all these single-use megalithic structures are good for the gross domestic product. Anything else is illegal.
While I disagree with Salatin's underlying philosophy -- particularly his strange railing against "a disconnected, Greco-Roman, Western, egocentric, compartmentalized, reductionist, fragmented, linear thought processes" (whatever that means!) -- his essay offers an invaluable glimpse into the insanity of government regulations in agriculture. I recommend that you read the whole thing.

The most common response to such reports on our government's insane regulatory schemes is to call for reform. People say, "we need more sensible regulations" or "we need more flexible regulations" or "we need regulations suitable for the small family farmer." In my view, that's completely wrong. Of necessity, regulations violate people's rights to property, contract, and trade. Regulations cannot be reformed into good sense. They should be repealed -- one and all.

But... why are regulations always violations of rights?

To survive and flourish as a human being requires the freedom to act in pursuit of life-sustaining values. Rights define those life-enabling freedoms. They are, as Ayn Rand says, "moral principle[s] defining and sanctioning a man's freedom of action in a social context."

People ought to be left free to pursue their own lives. They ought to reap the rewards of their own labor. They ought to be able to use their own property as they see fit. They ought to be free to trade with others to mutual advantage. Provided that people pursue their own goals without violating the rights of others -- such as by selling fraudulent goods or polluting neighboring property -- the government ought not interfere.

In essence, people ought to be free from coercive interference from others, whether criminals or bureaucrats, so that they may pursue their own best interests according to their own best judgment.

Regulations are one kind of coercive interference with a person's rightful freedom. Via regulations, people are forced to take certain actions and forbidden from taking others. They are required to perform certain actions in certain ways. They must hire only certain kinds of people to do certain kinds of work. They must pay those workers a certain wage, with certain benefits. They must collect and submit reams of paperwork; they must be licensed; they must pay fee upon fee. They are fined -- if not imprisoned -- if they fail to comply.

In essence, regulations force people to act against their own rational judgment of their own best interests -- via the mighty threat of government power. That's inherent in every form of regulation, even when intended to be kind and gentle. All regulations violate rights.

As John Galt says in Atlas Shrugged:
To force a man to drop his own mind and to accept your will as a substitute, with a gun in place of a syllogism, with terror in place of proof, and death as the final argument--is to attempt to exist in defiance of reality. Reality demands of man that he act for his own rational interest; your gun demands of him that he act against it. Reality threatens man with death if he does not act on his rational judgment: you threaten him with death if he does. You place him into a world where the price of his life is the surrender of all the virtues required by life--and death by a process of gradual destruction is all that you and your system will achieve, when death is made to be the ruling power, the winning argument in a society of men.
Like all violations of rights, regulations force people to act against their own minds and their own lives.

Farmers -- and other food producers -- deserve to have their rights respected just as much as everyone else. They should be free to act on their best judgment in their work -- without the burden of regulations. And we should be free to patronize them or not.

Of course, advocates of a paleo diet will strongly disagree with how some food producers choose to exercise their rights. Even in a free market capitalist economy -- as opposed to the mixed economy we have today -- many food producers would likely make junk like cold cereal, candy bars, and non-fat yogurt. But guess what? That would be their own damn problem!

Under capitalism, each individual would be free to support -- materially and morally -- all and only the food producers of his choosing. We would not be forced to subsidize corn and soy production with our tax dollars, and the vegans would not be forced to subsidize beef ranchers. We would be able to buy raw milk from any willing supplier, while the vegans could buy soy milk. We could seek out pastured chicken, even while others buy breaded chicken nuggets. Each person would be free to spend his dollars on the foods of his choice -- and unable to force others to conform to or even subsidize his preferences.

Of course, people would be free to attempt to persuade others to eat differently too. We could write and speak about the benefits of a paleo diet. We could petition companies to produce better foods -- and even boycott the worst offenders. We could hope to change minds, but we could not use force -- and nor could others use force against us. In a capitalist economy -- and only in a capitalist economy -- the food that people produce and consume would not be subject to the whims of politicians, bureaucrats, or voters. Each person would make his own choices. He would then enjoy the rewards of choosing well -- or suffer the consequences of choosing poorly.

In essence, under capitalism, each person would be responsible for his own life. He would be able to live as a free person. Wouldn't that be something?

Comment Rules

Rule #1: You are welcome to state your own views in these comments, as well as to criticize opposing views and arguments. Vulgar, nasty, and otherwise uncivilized comments will be deleted.

Rule #2: These comments are not a forum for discussion of any and all topics. Please stay loosely on-topic, and post random questions and comments in the designated "open threads."

Rule #3: You are welcome to discuss the merits (or lack thereof) of products. Spam comments will be deleted.

You can use some HTML tags in your comments -- such as <b>, <i>, and <a>.

Back to TOP