The Washington raisin thief

On any given day you can come up with some story or another of the federal government getting up to something outrageous, wasteful or simply stupid and I’m usually one of the guys who says, “Yeah, I heard about that.” Every once in a while, though, even I am taken by surprise and this story is one that I’d have suspected of being a hoax were it not for the source. The Supreme Court will hear a case this week which will determine whether or not the the feds can tell California farmers Marvin and Laura Horne that they must turn over more than a million pounds of their raisins (for no compensation) or pay Uncle Sam a fee of roughly $700K. This is a case of the US Kleptocracy, as George Will puts it, robbing the Hornes for the “greater good” of the public.

In oral arguments Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear the government defend its kleptocratic behavior while administering an indefensible law. The Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act of 1937 is among the measures by which New Dealers tried and failed to regulate and mandate America back to prosperity. Seventy-eight years later, it is the government’s reason for stealing Marvin and Laura Horne’s raisins.

New Dealers had bushels of theories, including this: In a depression, prices fall, so a recovery will occur when government compels prices to stabilize above where a free market would put them. So FDR’s “brain trust” produced “price stabilization” programs by which the government would fine-tune the supply of and demand for various commodities. In 1949, this regulatory itch was institutionalized in the Raisin Administrative Committee. Today it wants the Hornes to ante up about $700,000. They could instead have turned over more than 1 million pounds of raisins — at least four years of their production.

They have been refusing to comply with a “marketing order” to surrender, without compensation, a portion of their production for the RAC’s raisin “reserve.” The Hornes say this order constitutes an unconstitutional taking.

The number of Breaking News stories (at least to me) contained in this one column is staggering. First of all… we have a Raisin Administrative Committee? And a strategic raisin reserve? Lest you think this is some unique aberration, apparently that’s not the only one. There are dozens of other such helpful government supported entities under the auspices of the Department of Agriculture and they cover the supplies of everything from almonds, apricots, hazelnuts and kiwifruit to plums and spearmint oil. And apparently they can cause the feds to show up on your farm and seize your property if the prices for the product fall too far below what they think “it should be.”

This all comes back to the Taking power of the federal government. Controversial and problematic from the beginning, people can at least see a plausible argument for this power when it comes to needing land for public roads or similar infrastructure which is used by all the citizens. That power has been abused mightily over the centuries and abetted by the courts, with Kelo being the nadir of SCOTUS culpability in this organized theft. But I had thought of Taking almost entirely in terms of land. I am honestly flabbergasted to find out that they’re seizing people’s crops while offering no compensation in return.

There may be hope that SCOTUS will see the light on this one. Even Justice Kagan has expressed doubts.

Justice Elena Kagan has wondered whether this case involves “a taking or it’s just the world’s most outdated law.” The answer is: Both.

Government sprawl and meddlesomeness mock the idea that government is transparent. There are not enough cells in the human brain to enable Americans to know more than a wee fraction of what their government is up to. If they did know, they would know something useful — how much of what government does is a compound of the simply silly and the slightly sinister. The silly: Try to imagine the peril from which we are protected because the government maintains a spearmint-oil reserve. The sinister: The government is bullying and stealing property in order to maintain programs that make Americans pay higher commodity prices than a free market would set.

Just keep that last part in mind while we wait for the Supremes to come to a decision on this one. The government is seizing the products of farmers without compensating them. And the reason they are doing it is because you’re not paying enough for these products. If the court decides that this isn’t unreasonable seizure we may as well pack it in because this is madness.