Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Free the Small Farmers -- And Everybody Else, Too

Given the vitriolic nature of much left/right "debate" on the web, it's nice to see a civil exchange between people who nonetheless disagree quite fundamentally. So I want to congratulate Libby Spencer at Newshoggers and Jim Henley for the tone of a recent exchange that nonetheless nicely illustrates the differing mindset between those who instinctively support the modern liberal regulatory state and those who are more skeptical of it.

Spencer points to this Nation article, which focuses on the travails of one small Michigan farmer in dealing with overbearing regulators, but which discusses, more generally, the issues facing small farmers (often organice) who embrace a direct-to-consumer model. Reading this article in The Nation, I got the momentary sensation I was reading Reason instead. Witness this passage, for example:

But as the re-emergence of a farm-to-consumer economy draws increasing amounts of cash out of the mass-production factory system, the new movement is bumping up against suddenly energized regulators who claim they want to "protect" us from pathogens and other dangers.

Wow, I thought you had to be a libertarian to put "protect" in sneer quotes like that. Still, there is the inevitable swipe at big business and the "mass-production factory system" of agriculture. So it's The Nation after all. Spencer reads this article and concludes that reducing regulations will do nothing but "allow the corporations to more easily foist off bad food." But the regulations have to be done correctly, which, according to her means that "they need to be enforced against the commercial facilities they were designed to oversee, not wrongly used to destroy privately owned competition."

Jim Henley responds, in a post amusingly titled "Wishing for a Free Range, Organic -- Pony." Henley's argument is that this sort of thing is the inevitable result of the regulatory/farm welfare system we now have in place:

Three-quarters of a century of regulatory-state agriculture has left us with a system of subsidized corporate farms who deplete the soil, abuse animals and enjoy a coziness with state agents while the same state agents hassle independent operators and crusading eccentrics out of business. It’s as if, my man IOZ would say, there’s a pattern.

The pattern is that reforms are put in place to regulate evildoers, but the evildoers soon harness the regulatory agencies to reduce competition. There's even a term for that: it's called "regulatory capture." The classic example is the Interstate Commerce Commission, originally created to regulate railroads that quickly turned into a way for existing enterprises to restrict competition.

But Spencer doesn't see it that way. According to her it is all the fault of Big Bad Bush:

I'm not unaware that Bush didn't build the bureaucracy singlehandedly, but he stacked the agencies with industry cronies, putting them in charge of oversight. Under his administration, regulations have been relaxed from previous safety standards for everything from consumer goods to coal mining. Enforcement against corporate entities is practically nonexistent.

In other words, her view is that it's bad people enforcing the regulations, not the existence of the regulations themselves that causes the problem.

So who's right? Well, as a person who leans libertarian, I am naturally inclined to agree with Henley, but that could well be confirmation bias at work. And yet, I think that the evidence leads to that view. It may well be true that regulators have been unusually compliant under Bush -- I honestly don't know enough to make such a global judgment -- but as I noted earlier, the classic example of regulatory capture is the Interstate Commerce Commission, an agency created over 100 years ago. Nor is it limited to just the ICC -- it happens in basically every field when an all-encompassing regulatory agency takes over. The "bad people" explanation gets weaker and weaker when something happens over and over again.

I also have to wonder whether Ms. Spencer read the article in The Nation with sufficient care. The farmer who is highlighted, Greg Niewendorp, had problems not with the federal bureaucrats appointed by the Evil Bush, but instead had difficulties with the Michigan Department of Agriculture, a state regulatory agency. And, as the article highlights, the regulatory difficulties of these independent producers involve both state and federal regulators. Which, again, suggests a more structural problem, rather than the "bad people" explanation that Spencer seems to favor.

And there is at least some irony here. Niewendorp, the farmer whose plight was highlighted by the article in The Nation, objected to a program which is supposed to test cattle for bovine tuberculosis. In general, I am not a huge fan of government regulation, but as health-and-safety regulations go, requiring that beef critters be tested for communicable diseases doesn't strike me as being that onerous or unjustified. Now, Niewendorp's claim is that he's just a small-scale producer and that his customers trust his practices. As somebody with libertarian procilities, I am more willing than a lot of people to let people assume this sort of risk. However, if you are the sort of person who believes in the case for lots of government regulation generally, I don't see how you can say that the guy ought not have his cattle tested.

Likewise, the article talks about small-scale producers who do their own butchering, and sellers of raw milk and cider:

Federal and state agriculture and health authorities say farmers are violating all kinds of regulations to meet fast-growing consumer demand, such as slaughtering their own hogs and cattle instead of using state and federally inspected facilities, and selling unpasteurized dairy products and cider without the proper permits.

Raw milk is a matter of huge controversy. Personally, I don't enjoy throwing up all that much, and as a result I am a big fan of of pasteurization. Silly me, but I think Louis was onto something with this whole "germ theory" thing. That said, I think that if people want to purchase clearly-labeled raw milk, they ought to be free to do so. Likewise, I think that if people want to purchase cows or pigs that were slaughtered by the farmer in his barn, rather than in a government-inspected slaughterhouse, you ought to be free to do so, so long as there is full disclosure. But if you are the sort of person who read The Jungle and who believes generally in the case for government-inspected slaughterhouses, I am not sure why you ought to make an exception for "local, organic" farmers.


Cernig said...

Good post, and thank you for advancing a civilized discussion in a civilized way.

Regards, C

society girl said...

Very interesting discussion. Finally, the left is seeing how over-regulation and over-enforcement can be harmful to businesses -- of course, this time it is to a "good" business, organic farmers. Of course, the regulations are just as harmful to other small businesses and add costs even to large businesses - money that could be going to employees or shareholders instead. What I find most interesting is the attempt to blame Republican regulators, rather than the regulations themselves -- and, of course, most of those regulations are Democratic efforts.