Updated: Sep 27, 2020
What happens when laws that are supposed to protect us actually do us significant harm?
Romaine lettuce being plowed into the ground due to the shutdown of restaraunts. Reuters/Mike Blake.
For those who eagerly await the return of Jesus, all of our policy views are rooted, to a degree, in pragmatism. I don’t mean, of course, that those who hold to the absolute moral authority of God are free to pursue righteous ends by whatever means they desire. Rather, I am referring to the fact that Christianity leaves us no room for the utopianism that colors so many of the world’s prominent political systems. Christians, more than perhaps any other people, ought to recognize that all human beings are inherently sinful, and that, as a result, no government we create will ever be perfect. Instead, our hope is tied to a better Kingdom.
This can pose a challenge, or at least the appearance of a challenge, for those of us who profess that a libertarian approach to political policy is the most biblically consistent way for the government to accomplish good. The criticism most commonly brought by other Christians from the right is that by staying uninvolved in individual choices that don’t do direct harm to others, the government allows harm to come to society through the misuse of human liberty. While the individual choices may not be directly harmful, the government nonetheless has an obligation to build a better, safer, and more stable society. This charge is one that should be taken seriously, since, in essence, it is arguing that libertarian political decisions run the risk of doing real harm to the nation.
Russian children clamor for food, c. 1941
It is fortunate then, that the coronavirus has provided us with an excellent look at the practical outworking of this dispute. The libertarian position argues that there should be minimal government regulation, and that the authority of the civil state should be aimed almost exclusively at harmful actions taken towards others. By contrast, non-libertarian conservatives generally see a role for the government in accomplishing good and useful tasks at the national level. One area where this seems fairly obvious, both to conservatives and to many liberals as well, is in the creation of regulatory frameworks that protect people from the harm caused by making potentially dangerous choices. Let’s look at the nation’s food production system as a case study.
On its face, the production and processing of food seems like exactly the kind of place we would want a good bit of regulation to protect consumers. After all, food tainted through inappropriate management practices has the potential to do serious harm to a great many people. In fact, despite the vast network of regulatory agencies and rules in place, the United States still has regular outbreaks of foodborne illnesses caused by various unsanitary practices. None of this involvement seems unreasonable, especially if we accept that the government has a responsibility to protect people in cases like these. In my experience, these kinds of regulations are one of the consistent reference points people use to defend the State’s ongoing involvement in regulating commerce. We wouldn’t want greedy businesses harming people with shoddy cost-cutting measures, would we?
Polish depiction of the Holodomor, c. 1939
This argument breaks down when the same regulations designed to keep us safe begin to do us real harm. In the case of our food production system, this has been going on for years; but the coronavirus and its aftermath are exacerbating problems within a very fragile system. One of the best books I've ever read, and one that sealed my shift into libertarianism, is Everything I Want to Do is Illegal by Joel Salatin. From the title, you might be inclined to think this is the book equivalent of libertarian memes complaining that you can't buy marijuana and machine guns at the local gas station. However, Joel Salatin is one of the most influential farmers in the world. He’s a Christian who has dedicated his life—now in a multi-generational effort—to bringing our farming practices back into better alignment with our God-given responsibility to steward God’s Earth while providing higher-quality food for human beings. Where he’s run into trouble is that the regulatory framework that is supposed to be keeping us “safe” has actually made it harder for him to sell high-quality, locally-produced farm products directly to consumers in myriad ways that involve the entanglement of the local, state, and federal governments.
The cascade effects of these regulations have been a decades-long downturn in family-run farms, reduced access to production facilities, and ultimately a massive consolidation of the whole food production system. You’d think that regulations designed to keep our food safe would make it easier to get good-quality food, but in practice the opposite has proven to be true. I could go into far more detail on this issue alone, but there is already an abundance of writing on the topic elsewhere. Instead, let’s fast forward to the situation we find ourselves in today.
One of the first people who brought attention to the issue we’re facing was family farmer and pro-liberty congressman Thomas Massie. The massive, regulation-incentivized, consolidation of processors has resulted in 80% of US meat being processed by only 4 companies. Unfortunately, the combination of actual outbreaks of the virus and unintentional government incentives in the various relief efforts have resulted in a number of these facilities shutting down or being forced to run at greatly reduced capacity.
Massie, one of only five engineers in Congress, has warned that the shutdown could cause catastrophic supply problems.
Similar situations are being reported with many of the centralized systems responsible for harvesting, cleaning, and processing our produce as well. The result? At a time when grocery stores are having trouble keeping the shelves stocked, farmers are culling animals and plowing food under as it rots in their fields.
This whole thing feels rather silly to the average American, and it ought to. If the farms are producing food and there is market demand for food, then why would we be simultaneously destroying harvests and facing potential food shortages? A number of viral posts on social media have acknowledged the problem and strongly urged people to buy directly from the farms. Yet the same regulations that got us into this problem in the first place are continuing to exacerbate the problem.
The issues Joel Salatin describes with selling directly to consumers, who genuinely want to buy directly from the farm, are even more complex for farms who haven’t had decades of practice fighting the government to keep their businesses alive. In many cases they may even be legally prohibited from direct sales entirely. The result is an inability to easily shift their farm businesses to meet the change in demand, while grocery stores—the normal providers of food to most consumers—struggle with keeping food in stock.
This is where the argument that the government ought to act to protect the welfare of the nation, especially in protecting people from the risks of their own choices, really starts to unravel. The problem is that the government is not, and cannot be, omniscient. A centralized government lacks the knowledge it needs to effectively manage the internal economic, or moral, affairs of a range of different communities. If people choose to accept the risks of buying their food from farms who don’t have the government’s seal of approval, they should be allowed to do so. Even more concerning, the government’s efforts at accomplishing the "good" of protecting us from “bad” food have had a net effect of jeopardizing our entire food system.
A decentralized, localized food system would be far more resilient in the face of a crisis like this while also being healthier for humans and the Earth we’re supposed to be caring for. Unfortunately, government policy has created a highly centralized, efficient, and fragile system that is showing signs of failure in a critical moment. As usual, liberty shines through as the best solution to the problem.