Raw milk and liberty: why the revolution will not be pasteurized

23 03 2011

It’s difficult to know whether citizens of Sedgwick, Maine realized that they would be voting on a matter of national import when they gathered for a town meeting earlier this month.

No, they weren’t voting to secede from the union or to impeach a sitting President (as several small Vermont towns did during the Bush Administration). Rather, in a scene that probably resembled a saccharine Norman Rockwell painting, Sedgwick residents voted to affirm a right that many Americans don’t realize they have lost: the right to buy groceries without the intervention of the state.

If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, try buying raw, unpasteurized milk at your local grocery store. If you manage to secure an illegal milk hook-up or find a store that stocks said milk, you run the risk of being involved in a guns-drawn raid by regulators determined to keep contraband dairy off grocery store shelves. Yes, that nonsense actually happens if you are in one of the states that prohibits or restricts the sale of raw milk.

When I first saw an article on the subject of Sedgwick’s pioneering “Food Sovereignty” ordinance (via Reason), I was hit by how easily we take for granted the extent of the government’s intrusion into our daily lives–and how triumphant even seemingly mundane, localized acts of defiance against overbearing legislation can be.

Compared to the challenges presented by a staggering national debt, destructive economic policies wrought by bureaucrats and enabled by a reckless central bank, and an endless flood of regulations, laws, and taxes that threaten to permanently delay any return to prosperity, it’s easy to dismiss Sedgwick’s fight for access to unregulated meat and raw milk as frivolous.

Given the tendency to focus on the federal government as the root of all our woes, this sentiment is quite understandable and far from baseless. It’s easy to ask whether it’s worth fighting for greater personal liberty at a local level when the feds can undo it all with overbearing laws, regulations, or new mandates.

But decentralized, bottom-up progress is not only important–it’s an absolutely crucial component of the effort to increase the sphere of individual liberty while at the same time helping to reshape the national debate over the proper role of government in a free society.

After all (to take just one example), has largely been state, not federal policy that has turned the Midwest into the Rust Belt and fostered an economic boom in the South. Both regions suffer under the same intrusive federal government, but state laws favoring the stagnant status quo have meant that much of the Midwest has remained unattractive to new manufacturing enterprises (or non-subsidized enterprises of any kind) for decades.

Clearly, working to roll back government interference at a state or local level can pay immediate dividends for residents, all without having to stage a march on Washington.

Yet there is an added dimension to smaller-scale activism as well. A focus on local government, whether statewide or municipal, can also help raise bulwarks–albeit slightly shaky and potentially less-than-legally-sound bulwarks–against other unacceptable government overreach. That’s why Sedgwick’s fight for the right to buy unregulated dairy and meat products is so important in the broader fight to overcome the inertia that pushes the leviathan ever further into our everyday lives.

Many view the rules and regulations implemented by state or federal Departments of Agriculture or the Food and Drug Administration as essentially benevolent–they are here to protect us from Upton Sinclair’s tainted meat, not limit our choices as individuals. But that is just what these paternalistic laws do. Instead of encouraging individuals to make informed decisions about what substances to consume, such regulations infantilize and breed dependence.

Perhaps once Sedgwick residents boldly and bravely engage in free commerce by buying, selling, and consuming contraband milk and meat products from known sources and then not dying from foodborne illnesses, members of the public will begin questioning the need for such strict food-related regulation.

And if food, clearly vital for sustaining human life, can be safely and effectively provided without regulation, then why not do away with some (…or all) of the myriad other product safety regulations designed to protect us from ourselves? It is not difficult to imagine the consequences of even a simple, local effort to increase liberty spreading out like ripples, eventually causing change on a national level.

Small, decentralized efforts to roll back the influence of the state may not have the dramatic appeal of a protest on the National Mall, but they’re more likely to change minds in the long run.  In the mean time, they may allow you to experience the benefits of freedom directly–even if the benefits are as simple as fresh meat and unprocessed, unpasteurized milk.




One response

2 08 2011
Worth a read: Lipidleggin’ « Graham Kozak’s Blog

[…] wasn’t becoming an increasingly plausible career choice (it’s already a reality if you happen to like unpasteurized milk, that potent modern day hooch). You’ll want to laugh at the story, if only to ward off the cold chills running down your […]

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