Written by DuPage Libertarian member Andrew Lencioni
Farming, like any business, faces a mountain of paper work and regulation every day. While regulations involving food safety are somewhat understandable, many regulations go far beyond the simple mandate. As Henry Kissinger once said, “If you control the food supply, you control the people.” The federal and local government has taken that sentiment to heart in its legislation. Ironically many aspiring farmers are drawn to the “simple” life of farming only to find regulation and restriction that would make a Sarbanes-Oxley audit look fun. Farm bills and subsidies are common terms in the modern era, but many don’t realize just how long farming has been this way.
Back during World War II, an era often romanticized by modern Americans, a tragically abusive interpretation of the Constitution was taken by the government and challenged in the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, the verdict stood, paving the way for generations of abuse of the commerce clause. It was the first time that the commerce clause was used in such an unorthodox way. It essentially justified government control of virtually any activity that could affect commerce in anyway regardless of how indirect that might be.
Imagine if a small farmer were fined for growing a crop for personal use. No, I am not talking about marijuana, I am talking about wheat. That’s exactly what happened back in the early 1940’s to a farmer named Roscoe Curtiss Filburn. Mr. Filburn had a small 95 acre farm where he raised wheat for both sustenance and to feed his chickens. At the time, the Agriculture Adjustment Act of 1938 regulated the sale of wheat on the open market under the authority of the interstate commerce clause. The act allotted a maximum quota of wheat that could be produced and sold. Excess could be grown, but had to be stored and kept off the market. The balance of the crop could be sold the following year but had to be added to the quota allotment of the next year’s crop.
The marketing quotas set in 1938 are no longer in place, but were never invalidated. Most farm bills today involve subsidies and other “voluntary” controls, but the marketing quotas set in 1938 are permanent law. In fact, if a farm bill expires and is not renewed or replaced, the Agricultural Act of 1938 would automatically return as the law of the land.
In the legal case of Wikard vs. Filburn, Mr. Filburn was fined $.49 per bushel past quota for a total fine of $117.11. According to http://www.usinflationcalculator.com, that would be a little over $1600 today. While not an astronomical sum, it would certainly hurt a small farmer regardless of the point in history – but the amount of money that the farmer lost is not the heart of the story. The real consequence of this decision is that the government can tell farmers how and what to grow even for their own purposes.
In law, precedent is very important. Once a case has been decided, the findings of that case can influence other cases to come. In this case, the precedent set allows for nearly unlimited interference, not just on the sale and trade of various crops but on nearly any production at all. In Mr. Filburns case, the wheat was not sold but was fed to chickens that were his. This weak logic is all the government needed to claim justification of the interstate commerce clause. In more modern times the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, is justified in part by citing Wickard v. Filburn.
Bills directly affecting the right to produce goods could still be written and would be difficult to void thanks to Wikard v Filburn. Laws could conceivably restrict any activity that is commercially available. It opens up a lot of questions about personal freedom. What other laws could be written citing the interstate commerce law in this way? Could a law be written that prohibits making your own clothes? Could a law ban other DIY activities and force people to hire a “professional” for any normal task? Wikard v Filburn has the potential to directly affect all areas of American life.
Complex regulation is a fact of the modern world and has been for some time. The effect of all this regulation is hotly debated on all sides. More than a few experts have noted that large businesses generally benefit from most regulation. They have more available resources to deal with the additional overhead of compliance with complex laws. As many small businesses do not have a legal department, legal compliance can sap time, energy and resources already in tight supply.
Ultimately, a farm is just another business. Wikard v Filburn tells us this too. If additional government regulation tends to favor large business over small, would it not do the same with farms and for the same reasons? I make no attempt to hide my bias against big government. It should surprise few that I find direct connection between many of the ills of the farming industry and the regulations and laws regulating it. The old cliché, “the path to hell is paved with good intentions” couldn’t be truer with agriculture.
As my interest in farming has grown, I have met many people who complain about big agriculture. The complaints range from ruining rural life to poisoning the environment. There is a growing awareness of the dangers of mono-cropping. Mono cropping, such as corn and soy farming, is the mass production of a single crop to the exclusion of all other life on the field. There are many environmental problems related to this that I will not get into in this article. Other complaints are about big chemical companies like Dow and Monsanto poisoning ground water with pesticides and most recently polluting the very DNA of our crops with GMO.
I find great irony that most of the proposed answers to these problems are more government regulations. Organic producers and environmentally minded groups all clamor for more restrictions and government regulation to stop these big corporations from ruining the environment and our food supply. I am amazed at some people who just can’t see the connection between big government and big AG. Monsanto is my favorite example. The have taken in billions of dollars in subsidies from the government. There are few fans of Monsanto, and yet all of us have been paying them through our taxes. Forget stopping Monsanto, I’d like to simply call on us to stop helping them. I wonder if Monsanto could have created GMO products without the R&D funds provided by the US tax payer.
I think people don’t see the problems with the regulation of farming simply because it has been going on for so long. That is the point of this article. We take for granted subsides and farm bills because there have always been farm bills and regulations in our life. It’s not easy to question long standing policy without seeming “radical” even if those policies themselves are radical. Perhaps someday our children will see these types of regulations as being unusual. I guess that’s just the optimistic libertarian farmer in me.