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Food, freedom, and Wickard

In the “drop that cow’s teat” discussion below, about a Wisconsin dairy farmer and associates forbidden by a court from drinking raw milk from their own cows, commenter Stef spoke of a New Deal-era Supreme Court ruling, Wickard v. Filburn, recognizing that the federal government can prohibit individuals from growing food for their own use if the government determines that by so doing, the individuals are inhibiting interstate commerce. This decision is shocking in its scope. I had no idea it even existed. Get this: if the government believes private, non-commercial activity (e.g., growing wheat for private consumption, as Farmer Filburn did) inhibits commerce even in theory — that is, even if no harm has been demonstrated, but the government believes harm would result if more people engaged in that activity — then the government may shut it down.

If I understand this correctly, the government has the power to prevent you from planting tomatoes or raising chickens, if by so doing you are harming the economic prospects of large tomato growers or poultry factory farms. After all, if everybody started growing their own tomatoes or raising their own chickens, it would hurt big business. SCOTUS says the government has the right to outlaw thrift and self-reliance in these contexts.

Remember the Creekstone vs. USDA case a few years back, in which a federal appeals court forced a premium beef producer to stop doing extra testing for mad cow disease on its cattle. The government’s rationale was, in part, that the tests were not useful, and that allowing this company to test would run the risk of bringing U.S. beef into disrepute if other beef producers didn’t follow suit. In other words, the government carried water for giant beef producers, prohibiting a small beef producer from voluntarily going further than the law required in testing its beef. The effect of this decision caused a huge financial loss to the company, which could no longer sell its beef to Japan absent the testing.

It is staggering to think that the U.S. Government has the power to force you to destroy your backyard garden — not for public health reasons, but because in the government’s view, it hurts agribusiness — which spends well over $100 million annually lobbying Congress. But the government does have that power under Wickard. 

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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