Nominated for the Al Copeland Award: Charles Montesquieu

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

As of last month, it is illegal in the state of Wisconsin to go out to your own barn, milk your own cows, and then drink the milk.

Yes, you read that right. The case arises out of the ongoing controversy here in Wisconsin over unpasteurized or “raw” milk. Some people prefer to drink milk unpasteurized for various reasons – for some it’s a taste preference, for others it’s an “organic health” thing, for others it’s just a longstanding tradition of farm life. Personally, I’ve never tried it and don’t care to, but if it comes down to a choice between the foodies, hippies and agrarians on the one hand, and the Heath and Safety Narcs who want unlimited political control of all aspects of human life on the other – well, sign me up with the hippies. (Yes, Matt, you can link back to this post any time you want.)

Last year, when the tumultuous governorship of Scott Walker was still just a twinkle in the electorate’s eyes, we had a huge nuclear war up here over raw milk. I mean, this was the big controversy of the year last year here in dairy country. (Which is why you don’t normally read about what’s going on in state politics in other states. Back when I lived in Indiana, one year the biggest controversy of the year was over switching the state to daylight savings time. No kidding, it was Ragnarok down there.)

Last year they left it that you’re not allowed to sell raw milk. But the raw milk crowd inexplicably failed to submit to the Dictatorship of Health and Safety, and found numerous ways of continuing to exchange raw milk for economic goods. In some cases, you could come do an hour of farm work and get paid in raw milk. In others, farmers would leave raw milk and a locked box with a slot in the top out in the barn; periodically they’d check and find out that all the raw milk had been stolen, and in a totally unrelated development, people had left money in the box. (Perhaps they’d read Matt’s post about this fellow.)

So now, apparently, between one thing and another, we have a judge ruling that consumption of raw milk is illegal.

Worse, the judge has apparently percieved clearly that this opinion implies you have no right to own anything,  and feels perfectly comfortable about it. That this policy, if it were consistently upheld (we will see what happens next) does not merely lead us toward, but directly establishes, unlimited political control over all aspects of human life is apparently no barrier.

“No, Plaintiffs do not have a fundamental right to own and use a dairy cow or a dairy herd,” he thunders in his decision. “No, Plaintiffs do not have a fundamental right to produce and consume the foods of their choice.”

Admirably clear, that!

In response, I nominate Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu, for the Al Copeland Humanitarian of the Year Award. Montesquieu’s systematic collection of observations about modern government, The Spirit of the Laws, was the fruit of decades spent travelling and studying and was tremendously influential on the American Founders. If memory serves, Montesquieu is quoted more than any other source in the Federalist Papers. In fact, so authoritative was Montesquieu over the early Americans that papers 9 and 10 were composed to answer charges from the Anti-Federalists that the Constitution deviated unacceptably from Montesquieu’s views.

Many crucial innovations in what Hamilton called “the science of politics” emerged in the modern era, were systematically observed by Montesquieu, and then perfected by the Founders under Montesquieu’s influence. Representative democracy and greater rights for the accused in criminal trials were among them. Perhaps the most important was the separation of powers, an idea as old as Aristotle but one that didn’t reach maturity until the Glorious Revolution in 1688 and the U.S. Constitution a century later.

As a critical component of the emergence of this system, Montesquieu insisted that a republic cannot maintain its freedom unless judges restrain their influence as tightly as possible. The application of personal wisdom by individuals in authority, rather than clear and stable standards of public law, as a standard for settling disputes is the jurisprudential principle of monarchy. In the context of monarchy (which has other methods of restraining the willfulness of the rulers) it can be exercised in humane ways. It becomes tyrannical when exercised in a republic, where the traditional social restraints on power that prevail in monarchies have been removed, and the willingness of the rulers to rule by the law rather than their own wisdom is the only barrier to unlimited arbitrary exercise of power.

As Franklin famously observed, the Founders gave us a republic if we can keep it. It was Montesquieu who taught them how to create that republic, and if we have enjoyed the last two centuries of republican government we should be grateful to him.

9 Responses to Nominated for the Al Copeland Award: Charles Montesquieu

  1. Joy Pullmann says:

    I’m a Wisconsin native, and my dad an organic farmer. I grew up drinking raw milk from the family Jersey. Not only is it delicious (and a lot better for people with slight milk allergies or small children just switching over, as it’s easier to digest with the raw enzymes), I can’t stand to think myself now a “criminal” for it. Absurd. Sometimes I think judges revere Kafka.

  2. AHLondon says:

    Can you pit twitter buttons on the mobile versions of post. It’ll save me copy and pasting.
    I’m pretty sure thus post will get hits over time; Matt will link often, you Hippie man.

  3. AHLondon says:

    Buttons appeared on comment confirm page. Strange.

  4. matthewladner says:

    Good grief, we seem to inch ever closer to needing Robert DiNiro’s guerrilla air condition repair character from Brazil.

  5. Daniel Earley says:

    Excellent nomination, Greg! His book, The Spirit of the Laws did indeed change the world.

    Yours may trump an even more obscure and forgotten influence on the founders I was thinking of, Joseph Addison, who in 1712 had written a play entitled “Cato, a Tragedy” which had swept both Europe and the American colonies. Cato’s epic and historic resistance to Caesar’s tyranny as depicted in the play had become well known to the founders, with George Washington even having the play performed for his troops while camped at Valley Forge. Patrick Henry’s famous ultimatum: “Give me Liberty or give me death!” is even attributed as being inspired by lines from the play, as well as Nathan Hale’s: “I regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” Perhaps both men are deserving — Addison inspiring the heart and Montesquieu the head?

  6. Joe Higgins says:

    This is a response I got from a friend in WI who is involved in the industry….a very different perspective.

    this is all bogus. this article is mis-interpretting the ruling that you cannot drink milk that you own from a cow that is not on your property. essentially, it gets rid of cow-share programs. these programs are designed to own 20% of a cow so you can go get milk whenever you want. However, you are not milking, feeding, or cleaning up after the cow because you do not own the farm, nor care for the animals because you don’t live there and are not an employee of the farm. farm employees can take as much milk out of the bulk tank as they want. i have several clients who are putting their foot down on this because they do not want the liability. some of their employees were distributing it to their friends.

    you can drink milk that you produce. you can even give as much raw milk away as you want, no questions asked. you can even sell raw milk to someone who comes up to your farm asking for a gallon. this is called an indirect sale. you just cannot market it or sell it in a retail manner. you can even slaughter your own animal and eat it. you can slaughter other people’s animals for them to eat it too, as long as you are not selling it. if you are selling it, you need to be USDA inspected.

    • Greg Forster says:

      It’s true that “cow sharing” plans are the immediate cause of action in the case. However, the judge’s ruling against cow sharing does not stand by itself in a vacuum. The reasoning the judge uses to reach the verdict is part of his decision and has an impact on what is legal and illegal beyond the immediate case.

      The reasoning this judge uses is clear and explicit. He says explicitly in the “clarification” linked above that you have no fundamental right to own a cow, or to produce or consume the foods of your choice.

  7. […] Last year’s winner was Earle Haas, inventor of the tampon, for his contribution to the liberation of women. My nominee that year, in reaction against an alarming court decision denying that people have a fundamental right to own or consume what they wish, was Charles Montesquieu. […]

  8. […] and his critics are right that this is an essentially monarchical exercise of power. As Montesquieu argued, the essence of monarchical and aristocratic government is the discretion of the rulers to act […]

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