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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Tale of Two Situations

Once upon a time selling a chicken was fraught with few if any legal implications. Remodeling a shed was equally simple from a regulatory standpoint. Today, however, we live in more enlightened times. Protected from our wayward desires by an empowered bureaucracy, we can rest easier knowing that decisions like what we eat and where we build are being carefully managed by authorities.

Playing Chicken

Josh is a Mennonite friend who happens, by the grace of native talent and a powerful work ethic, to produce magnificent chickens. Raised on green growing pasture, they are never medicated, never fed artificial supplements or genetically selected to grow abnormally fast. They develop rich golden fat and a deep flavor, characteristics that have been more or less lost in modern, streamlined, highly efficient poultry production. Not surprisingly, Josh’s chickens are in high demand among food cognoscenti and fine restaurants. A couple of years ago I began bringing Josh’s chickens to my farmers’ market stand to sell alongside our equally popular grassfed beef. Josh and I, in a classic entrepreneurial endeavor, have made these wholesome chickens available to happy, discerning customers who would otherwise be unable to justify a three-hour commute to buy a bird for dinner.

Josh processes his chickens on his farm under a legal exemption allowing him to avoid industrial (and expensive) processing plants. Each chicken he produces is clearly labeled as to origin, method of production, and added ingredients (none); the label also cites the statute that allows him to operate unmolested.

Recently he was informed by the Food Safety Inspection Service, the regulatory arm of the USDA, that he faced a “situation.” They had discovered a chink in the otherwise protective “non-molestation” statute. Because he is marketing chickens to an intermediary (me), his product is therefore rendered illegal and he must desist. In a disturbing addendum the inspector also let slip that the USDA would be willing (“free of charge”) to take over inspection of his facilities and that they would be “more than happy to help him get going,” presumably in the chicken business.

The same authority willing to allow a company to distribute (and I’m not making this up) a neon-green sugar drink with the word “sweetener” (in quotes) on the ingredient list believes that customers cannot be trusted to buy a natural chicken from a reputable farmer.

Raising the Roof

I have an old shed I’d like to turn into an office. It’s a small, uncomplicated project. I do not intend to host conventions there or otherwise expose innocents to my construction acumen.

I could use a hand, so I called a man advertising his handyman services on a placard outside the feed store. We talked it over; he needed capital and I needed labor; we had a deal. I had expected to be hammering on joists this morning instead of this keyboard but for the fact that he didn’t show up today. Why? The county, vigorously addressing this “situation,” had torn down all his signs (including one in front of his home), citing him for neglecting to indicate his contractor’s license. Fair enough, you say; he knows the rules and got burned. So why the stink?

Well, here is a gentleman in his mid-50s with more than 25 years of construction experience who was a licensed contractor in Florida before moving to Arizona. For more than six months he has been fighting to gain the requisite licensing. He is obliged, among other onerous duties, to provide 25 references spanning his entire career and from across a continent before his application can enter the waiting list. He estimates his application will cost $10,000 and take another six months. He is afraid to work with me, even as a “tutor,” because he has been told that counties often set people up to entrap them.

Once again presumptuous authority has stepped between educated, intelligent adults to prevent free, fully cognizant transactions. Am I a pathological obediphobe to find such meddling unsavory?

Even if these cases turn out to be simple errors in communication or an innocent overstepping of authority, the damage has already been done. The perception alone is enough to chill behavior. In relaying these injustices I have now wasted hours that could have otherwise been spent creating outstanding beef; Josh is reducing his next order of chicks; and an out-of-work man with a lifetime of skills sits idle wishing for work.

Perhaps these are just the fickle vagaries, the marginalia of an otherwise appropriate regulatory regime. But I’m afraid they represent a deeper, metastasized, problem. The late Mr. Jefferson, that “intellectual voluptuary” according to his Big Government nemeses, explained that government’s only purpose is to secure natural rights. Governments, he believed, exist to protect life, liberty, property, and little else. It’s probably archaic of me to wish for a return to such a limited view, but I can’t help it. The kind of absurd oversight now considered standard practice feels fundamentally unjust.

It would be wonderful to live in a world where selling a chicken and remodeling a shed weren’t rife with official allegations or burdened with State prohibitions.

  • Paul Schwennesen is a southern Arizona rancher. He can be reached at Paul holds a Master’s degree in Government from Harvard University and a dual Bachelor’s degree from the Air Force Academy. He appears frequently on FOX Business News, and is a regular contributor to the Property and Environment Research Center. His writing has appeared in The Freeman, American Spectator, The Tucson Citizen, Stockman Grass Farmer, Master Resource, and the Arizona Cattlelog. He and his wife Sarah raise three children in a decidedly centralized, highly regulatory environment.