A shocking example of government run amok, is it time to re-think the role of government?

There is a story making the rounds of the Nevada news this past week, with the Las Vegas Weekly asking, "Did the Health District go too far to regulate a farm-to-table event?" The author seems to reach the conclusion by the end of the article that, yes, they did. The I-Team on 8newsnow.com did an investigation on this story as well that can be found here. There is a 4 minute video that accompanies the article that I highly recommend watching as well. Quoting from the Las Vegas Weekly piece here is a brief summary of what transpired:

Quail Hollow Farm in Overton had—or tried to have, anyway—a “farm-to-table” dinner last month. This is when a chef takes vegetables and freshly butchered meats and serves them up right there at the farm to fancy food types—“locavores”—who like their food really fresh. Sounds pretty great, right?
Well, someone at the Southern Nevada Health District saw an ad for the event and decided to get on the case.

The health department called farm owners Laura and Monte Bledsoe and said they’d need a special-use permit because it was a “public” event. They complied, or tried to at least.
The night of the event, the guests arrived at the farm, and so did the food inspector. Here were the issues, according to Laura Bledsoe: Some prepared food packages had no labels; some of the meat was not USDA certified; some food was prepared in advance off-site and not up to proper temperature; vegetables were declared unfit; and there were no receipts for food.


In the end, the health inspector demanded that bleach be poured on the food, including vegetables, to ensure it was not consumed.
The aforementioned articles do a great job of summarizing the events as they transpired. The I-Team investigation even gets the Southern Nevada Health District (SNHD) supervisor to confess that she does not agree with all the laws, but must enforce them anyway. What none of these articles seem to address, however, is the underlying premise that allows for these types of incidents to occur. That premise is the idea that it is the government's job to keep us safe.

There is quite a bit wrong with such an idea. The very first thing one must point out is that the idea of total safety is an impossible goal. We can do things to increase our relative safety but for something to be perfectly safe, is impossible. The very nature of human action and the fact that the future is uncertain precludes such a state of affairs from being reached. Now I am sure that most people are aware of this concept. The reason I wanted to reiterate it, is that if we task the government to achieve a goal which can never be reached, there are no limits to the actions it can take, as long as it justifies them as being made in the interest of attempting to achieve this unachievable goal - in this case, public safety.

This is a problem. America has a very proud heritage of the principles of individual liberty and freedom. Another concept that goes hand and hand with these principles is the idea of personal responsibility. It is worth pointing out, this is very much the tradeoff one makes when adulthood is reached. In exchange for the freedom acquired of being an adult, the immunity from taking responsibility for your actions as a child fades away. You are now free to do as you please, but with that freedom comes ownership and responsibility for oneself and the choices you make.

These are desirable traits of being an adult, as well as the hallmarks of a free society. Historically in America, the role of government has been to protect the rights of individuals so that a free society could flourish. Over the past few generations that simple yet crucial role has been diminished in importance, however, and replaced with another objective instead - safety. One needs only attempt to step on an airplane, turn on the tap water, or in this case, grow your own food, to see the effects of a government more concerned with "keeping you safe" than it is with protecting your property rights.

But the ambiguous nature of such a task - "to protect and promote the public health and safety", is incompatible with a free society and the protection and enforcement of private property rights. This is what must be realized. You can have a government that watches over you and is tasked with perpetually trying to maintain your safety and well-being, but such a government precludes the possibility of a truly free society. Every expansion towards the elusive goal of safety, by necessity, is a restriction and diminution on the sphere of liberty.

If the government has any legitimate role in this area, and that is very much in question, it should be in an accommodating nature, as opposed to an imposing one. If we resign to the notion that we need the government to remind us to wash our hands or cook our food properly,  it should be done voluntarily as opposed to mandated. This specific instance at Quail Hollow Farm illustrates my point quite nicely. Which group of people do you feel more confident in to oversee the production of your food: The Bledsoes (owners of the farm) or the SNHD, which declared that all the food must be bleached and destroyed, not because they found it to be unsafe, but simply because it was not government certified. I venture to guess I can not possibly be alone in preferring the judgement of organic farmers who have created a thriving business for themselves, as opposed to the government agency that looks at a pile of freshly prepared food in a State with tens of thousands of starving and homeless people, and orders it to be destroyed, because it is possible someone could get sick!

Yet not only is it this grossly incompetent and counterproductive bureaucratic agency that is given the role of ensuring food safety over demonstrably more qualified parties, such as farmers themselves, all other options are literally outlawed! All citizens must both fund this agency and follow its edicts. You are not free to opt out.

This brings us to a very important point. Are agencies that operate under the guise of acting in the public interest or promoting public safety, actually designed to do that which they purport to? Or are they more about the illusion of safety? Perhaps their primary function is simply the continued collection of revenue via taxes, permits, and licensing fees, to sustain the bureaucracy tasked with overseeing the health of the public. One rather revealing piece of information that suggests this to be the case, and that this is a systemic feature of the agency, rather than an outlier, comes from the Nevada Statute Law which gives the SNHD its authority. It reads:

NRS 446.870  Prohibited acts: Operation of food establishment without valid permit issued by health authority; sale, offer or display for consideration of food prepared in private home without valid permit issued by health authority; exemptions.
1.  Except as otherwise provided in this section, it is unlawful for any person to operate a food establishment unless the person possesses a valid permit issued to him or her by the health authority.
 3.  Food that is prepared in a private home and given away free of charge or consideration of any kind is exempt from the provisions of this chapter
 NRS 446.020  “Food establishment” defined.
      1.  Except as otherwise limited by subsection 2, “food establishment” means any place, structure, premises, vehicle or vessel, or any part thereof, in which any food intended for ultimate human consumption is manufactured or prepared by any manner or means whatever, or in which any food is sold, offered or displayed for sale or served.
      2.  The term does not include:
      (a) Private homes, unless the food prepared or manufactured in the home is sold, or offered or displayed for sale or for compensation or contractual consideration of any kind;

The above demonstrates two things quite clearly. The first is the egregiously intrusive and overbearing scope of the SNHD. This is critically important to understand. The above example is not merely one of an inspector gone awry. Rather, it is the SNHD simply doing the job it was tasked to due by law. As horrific as the Quail Hollow Farms incident was, surely the law that is both responsible for and encourages such "inspections" is a much greater outrage. In a very real sense, the inspector can be excused from blame as she was simply doing her job. And isn't that the real problem? The nature of this job and the laws that provide a justification for it? What sort of substantive change can be accomplished if the above statutes, and the role of government they represent, are left as is?

The second takeaway from the governing law that gives the SNHD its authority, is the juxtaposition of an intensely detailed and expansive definition of a food establishment and all those whom fall under the SNHD's authority, while simultaneously excusing those whom engage in the very same activities as long as they do not sell their product. How does one reconcile the claim that food establishments are, on the one hand, absolutely necessary to be regulated by the SNHD in order to "keep the public safe", yet those very same establishments are free to be left to their own devices and not inspected by the SNHD, simply if they decide to give their product away for free? How does the determination of the asking price (or lack thereof) impact, in any way, that food's safety and methods of preparation? Either these measures are as vitally important as they claim to be, and must be applied broadly to all, or they are superfluous and specifically target revenue generating food establishments for obvious reasons. Is it possible this law is geared more towards generating revenue to fund the very regulatory agency it created, as opposed to the "promotion of public safety"?

I have said nothing so far in regards to the free market solutions to this problem of food quality and inspection. The reader is sure to ask, "What would happen without the SNHD or USDA inspecting our food to ensure it is safe?" This is a very important question and one that deserves a comprehensive answer. I would direct the reader to two excellent pieces by the Ludwig Von Mises Institute here and here. For the sake of brevity, all I will add is that there is a tremendous incentive for food producers to ensure that their food is safe. It is also worth mentioning that free market alternatives already exist, and the market for such alternatives would only grow with the elimination of existing government regulatory bodies.

All photos by Leila Navidi of the Las Vegas Weekly.

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