by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Ronald Reagan is known for saying a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see in this world. That quip came to mind as this observer read a Bloomberg Businessweek article about “The U.S. Government’s Sweet Stash.”
Last month the Supreme Court ruled on an obscure little case called Horne v. Department of Agriculture, brought by a California raisin farmer who claims that by requiring him to pay into this so-called raisin reserve, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is illegally confiscating his private property. The case didn’t attract much media attention because the unanimous ruling was just a logistical one—it was kicked it back to a lower court—that was dwarfed by the gay-marriage and voting-rights decisions, which, understandably, are much bigger political issues than dried fruit. …
Still, for most of us the discovery of a governmental raisin hoard will count as a question-raising surprise. Where are they kept? Why are they kept? Is the American economy in danger of being thrust into recession by an avalanche of underpriced raisins? What other piles of fruit are out there, and, more importantly, can we eat them? …
… [T]he raisin reserve is part of what’s called a federal marketing order, a set of rules establishing how much of a specific crop can be sold in any given year. The regulations date back to the Agricultural Marketing Agreement of 1937, which sought to give Depression and Dust Bowl-ravaged farmers a way to limit supply collectively so they could raise crop prices to sustainable levels. Make the grapes a little less wrathful, and all that.
There are 22 crops with marketing orders, including avocados, olives, and prunes. The orders are set by individual crop committees with comically bureaucratic names such as the Raisin Administrative Committee and the Almond Board of California, which are overseen by the USDA. “The USDA is kind of like a policeman,” explains Andrew Novakovic, professor of agricultural economics at Cornell University. “They don’t make the decisions so much as make sure everyone abides by the rules.”
What might have sounded like a good idea 75 years ago certainly seems out of place today.
At the state level, there are good ways to ensure that outdated and unnecessary rules don’t linger for decades past their sell dates. Jon Sanders discusses those methods in his latest report.