IT'S NOT EVERY DAY that a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court compares the long-term actions of the federal government to the misdeeds of the Soviet Union. But it happened on April 22, 2015, when the Court heard oral arguments in the case of Horne v. United States Department of Agriculture.
At issue was the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (UsnA) attempt to force a pair of California raisin farmers named Marvin and Laura Horne to surrender a portion of their annual crop (or its cash equivalent) to the federal authorities for the ostensible purpose of creating an "orderly" domestic raisin market. "These programs go ; back to the 193os,when the agricultural industry in this country was in serious trouble," Deputy Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler told the Court. He implored the justices to leave the confiscatory practice in place.
"Central planning was thought to work very well in 1937," scoffed Justice Antonin Scalia in response, "and Russia tried it for a long time."
Scalia had a point. Central planning was thought to work very well in 1937, the year in which Congress passed the Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act. That sweeping New Deal law empowered the secretary of agriculture to fix prices, set production quotas, and otherwise attempt to plan the entire agricultural economy of the United States of America. Twelve years later, invoking its powers under the 1937 law, the USDA started requiring California raisin farmers to hand over part of each year's crop, free of charge, to a federal entity known as the Raisin Administrative Committee (RAC).
The Supreme Court of 2015 wasn't buying it. On June 22, Chief Justice John Roberts led the Court in vindicating the Homes' rights and rejecting the government's byzantine scheme. "Raisins are not dangerous pesticides" in need of intrusive federal control, Roberts observed. "They are a healthy snack."
It was a major victory for property rights and a welcome rebuke to regulatory overreach. But Horne v. USDA is more than just the story of small farmers fighting back against big government. It's also the story of a federal regulation so preposterous and unconstitutional that when it finally landed before the Supreme Court, a majority of the justices practically laughed it out of the building.
Fruits of the New Deal
On July 2,1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt took the stage at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago to accept his party's nomination for the presidency of the United
States. "I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people," Roosevelt declared.
At the heart of Roosevelt's ambitious agenda was what he called "a desirable first step in the reconstruction of agriculture." Farmers, he felt, were harvesting too many crop: and raising too much livestock. The market was saturated prices were plummeting, and the entire agricultural sector appeared to be on the verge of collapse.
Roosevelt proposed a bold solution. In exchange for lucrative federal goodies such as subsidies, loans, price supports, and tariffs, he explained to the Democratic faithful farmers would be expected to toe a new line set by the best and brightest in Washington. "I am sure," Roosevelt said, "that the farmers of this Nation would ultimately agree to such planning of their production as would reduce the surpluses."
Less than a year later, FDR was living in the White House. His dream of central planning was made real via the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933. This far-reaching piece of federal legislation empowered the secretary of agriculture to fix prices, set quotas, and bring about a "reduction in the acreage or reduction in the production for market, or both, of any basic agricultural commodity." Sometimes the New Dealers used the law to tell farmers how many crops they were permitted to grow. Other times they told farmers not to grow any crops at all. Some farmers were even paid to burn crops or slaughter livestock. Whatever the means, the end...