TAMPA, April 3, 2013 ― While the high priests in black robes were hearing arguments on gay marriage, President Obama quietly signed the continuing resolutions act that keeps the federal government operating in the absence of a budget. Buried inside the bill was language that has become notoriously known as “the Monsanto Protection Act.” The blogosphere exploded with cries of conspiracy, crony capitalism and corruption.
Liberals oppose the provision for the usual reasons: It lets a big corporation “run wild” without appropriate government oversight, free to (gasp!) make bigger profits on food. More thoughtful liberal arguments have suggested it may threaten the separation of powers by allowing the executive branch to override a decision by the judicial.
The lunatic fringe believes that Monsanto will control the world’s food supply through intellectual property laws and enslave us all, like the evil corporation did with oxygen in Total Recall. Of course, let’s not forget that old saying. “Just because I’m paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get me.”
The liberal reaction to this bill and Monsanto’s activities in general is not surprising. It’s the libertarian reaction that’s surprising and disappointing. Even the Ron Paul crowd sounds like New Deal Democrats when it comes to this corporate farming giant.
They say that regardless of how much he supports the free market, everyone has that one issue that he is hopelessly socialist on. For some, it’s roads and so-called “infrastructure.” For others, it’s intellectual property. For Thomas Jefferson, it was education. Apparently, for libertarians it’s farming.
Now, if libertarians want to argue that corporations shouldn’t exist at all, that the privilege of limited liability violates individual rights and leads to market distortions, that regulating the markets only insulates large corporations from competition, that’s one thing. I’ve been there, written that.
But that’s not what libertarians are suggesting. Believe it or not, even supporters of Ron Paul are suggesting that new government regulations be passed requiring Monsanto to label its packaging to indicate whether there are genetically modified organisms (GMOs) among the contents. This is as unlibertarian as it gets.
There are legitimate concerns about whether GMOs represent a danger to the public. Certainly, each person has a right to refuse to consume them, but they don’t have a right to force Monsanto’s shareholders to label their own property. Neither do they have a right to interfere with consumers who voluntarily purchase that property from Monsanto without a label on it.
The libertarian answer is for those concerned about GMOs to refuse to purchase food that is not labeled to their satisfaction. The market already provides those alternatives. There is no substantive difference between the possible safety risks in Monsanto’s GMO food and those inherent in any other technology that legitimizes government regulation of voluntary activity. Either libertarians believe in the market or they don’t.
We’ve been told that the “Monsanto Protection Act” allows the executive branch to set aside court rulings, with the implication that the president or his Secretary of Agriculture can allow growers like Monsanto to keep growing and selling a particular product even after a judge orders them to stop. We’re led to believe that this would apply in a scenario where GMOs have been ruled to have caused death or illness and a court has ordered the grower to cease and desist to protect the public. But that’s not what the language says.
“SEC. 735. In the event that a determination of non-regulated status made pursuant to section 411 of the Plant Protection Act is or has been invalidated or vacated, the Secretary of Agriculture shall, notwithstanding any other provision of law, upon request by a farmer, grower, farm operator, or producer, immediately grant temporary permit(s) or temporary deregulation in part, subject to necessary and appropriate conditions consistent with section 411(a) or 412(c) of the Plant Protection Act, which interim conditions shall authorize the movement, introduction, continued cultivation, commercialization and other specifically enumerated activities and requirements …”
Section 411 of the Plant Protection Act deals with the regulation of “plant pests,” which are widely defined in the bill to include protozoans, bacteria, fungi, animals, and generic categories like “infectious agent or other pathogen.”
So, what are we really talking about here? A court case to determine if a regulation that shouldn’t even exist can be used to disrupt the otherwise legal operations of a company whose product has been identified by someone as a “plant pest.” Who would bring such a charge? Most likely a competitor or a left wing group that opposes and seeks to disrupt all for-profit activity. It’s Standard Oil and the Sherman Anti-Trust Act all over again.
Libertarians are usually good at separating their opposition to crony capitalism from their support of the free market. That’s why you’ll find them attacking large corporations one day and defending them the next.
That means that when corporations use the government for illegitimate advantages, as Monsanto has in seeking intellectual property rights in its GMOs, the libertarian response is to oppose intellectual property rights. It is not to empower the government to further regulate the market and violate property rights. If it is, then why was FDR and the New Deal wrong?
Tom Mullen is the author of A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America.