Americans have a pretty reasonable set of rights vis a vis the government, I’d prefer the range were a bit broader but there’s no question that we’re well ahead of almost everybody else in the world. China and Russia may not like it, but their protestations that our rights are some “western conspiracy” are absurd, they grew directly from the early days of the Enlightenment. That may have started with English and French philosophes, but every part of that applies to humans in general rather than humans in a particular place.
One right that we are not guaranteed is a right to farm, but then there doesn’t seem to be a lack of farming, and the constraints on that activity are primarily economic rather than governmental, so it’s no surprise that James Madison didn’t include any reference to agriculture in the Bill of Rights, nor has any subsequent amendment. In Missouri, however, Amendment 1 is on the ballot. The heart of this would amend Article I, Section 35 of the Constitution of Missouri to read:
That agriculture which provides food, energy, health benefits, and security is the foundation and stabilizing force of Missouri’s economy. To protect this vital sector of Missouri’s economy, the right of farmers and ranchers to engage in farming and ranching practices shall be forever guaranteed in this state, subject to duly authorized powers, if any, conferred by Article VI of the Constitution of Missouri.
That certainly sounds like something any Chamber of Commerce or state legislature would go along with, clearly a harmless bit of rural boosterism. Except that the organizers see it as a way to prevent regulation of agriculture, such as attempts by the much hated (at least in Missouri farm country) Humane Society of the United States to advocate rules on the amount of space and fresh air that laying hens must be provided. In North Dakota, the only other state with a similar amendment, there haven’t been any real changes as a result. (I learned of this issue from a New York Times article by Julie Bosman, “Missouri Weighs Unusual Addition to Its Constitution: Right to Farm” in today’s issue.)
But if they reject reasonable regulation of their operations, how far do they intend to go? Will they be spraying the wetlands protected for migratory birds with DDT? Allowing unimpeded fertilizer runoff into streams and rivers? Depleting aquifers for thirsty crops and leaving cities to live on Perrier? What about bringing back slavery? All of these are historically-accepted “farming and ranching practices” in the US.
The vote is tomorrow (5 August 2014), and the farm community has spent over a million dollars pushing it. It’s a primary in a non-presidential year so turnout will be low, hordes of angry farmers arriving at polling places on their tractors could put it over, despite the overwhelming opposition by just about every newspaper in the state.
If I Were King I’d just smile, knowing that much of the country’s strength, as the early leaders of the Enlightenment knew, is based on the ability of the citizens to organize and campaign to change the way they are governed. Regardless of who is in charge, or whether this is adopted at the polls, this case may make the farmers feel better but won’t change much.
Update – 6 August 2014 – Amendment 1 passed with a 50.1% yes vote. The Missouri secretary of state has until 26 August to certify the results, at which any person who voted against it can demand a recount based on the slim margin. I’m not sure whether to be appalled or amused at the possible legal antics to follow.