The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion California’s ham-fisted war on pork offers some useful lessons

A voter-approved California ballot measure set the nation's toughest living space standards for breeding pigs. (Charlie Neibergall/ File/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

An intriguing feature of recent political life has been the sudden discovery by much of the American left of the virtues of federalism. Oh, there has been no conversion to the principle of subsidiarity, that decisions ought to be made at the levels closest to daily life. The leftists’ credo still calls for overruling the choices of their benighted fellow citizens regarding labor laws, voting procedures — virtually anything where outcomes can be dictated centrally.

But, at least in cases where it has proved difficult to impose their will nationally, those of the statist persuasion have decided to move ahead in places under their control, and that has some indirect value to us all.

Consider the current case study of California’s Proposition 12, which includes a provision whereby the state’s voters were persuaded to ban the sale of pork from feeding operations unless they meet standards virtually nonexistent in the industry today.

The proposition, approved in 2018 and effective as of Jan. 1, imposes criminal and civil penalties on anyone selling pork from a facility where sows live in less than 24 square feet or might touch an enclosure when turning around. A trace percentage of the nation’s livestock farms meet this test, and those that do serve almost entirely niche local markets.

The Supreme Court is now weighing whether to take a case from the agriculture industry challenging the proposition. (The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit allowed it to stand.)

Helaine Olen: Stop squealing over California's new animal welfare law

Here is not the place, and the author is not the person, to argue either the scientific merits of California’s radical new requirements, or the legal prospects for a rule that would have impacts so large and so far beyond the state’s borders.

Suffice to say that both are dubious. The proposition was cooked up not by anyone with expertise in agriculture or food safety, but by people whose sole concern is animal rights. As the agriculture community’s Supreme Court brief says, “The law is based on a human health rationale so patently false that California has declined to defend it.”

The extraterritorial reach and burden of the California rule might well lead to its being struck down. The state imports about 99 percent of its pork, so the entire burden of the new requirements will fall on producers elsewhere, especially small farmers, either to fork over an estimated total of $300 million to $350 million for building entirely new facilities, or to forgo selling in California, about 13 percent of the U.S. pork market.

One extraordinary provision of Prop 12 declares that agents of the California Department of Food and Agriculture are free to come on the property of producers to inspect for compliance. Visualizing a ponytailed, clipboard-toting coastal type marching onto a hog farm in Iowa or North Carolina suggests a new entry for one of those “world’s most dangerous jobs” lists.

A state action more plainly burdensome to interstate commerce would be hard to imagine, and the 9th Circuit has over the years had the highest reversal rate of any federal appeals court.

And yet, the nation could benefit from the ensuing spectacle should the law be allowed to stand. The first to feel the effects will be Californians themselves. Whatever the industry response to the new regime, they will quickly be paying much more for pork, when they can find it at all. As you sow, so shall you reap. Sorry.

The famous phrase “laboratories of democracy” is still the most apt description of our federal system and, along with its protection of local liberties, its greatest advantage. For instance, the legalization of marijuana in many states is furnishing real-world evidence for others to study in making their own decisions.

An activist governor or mayor is constantly watching for successful innovations elsewhere to copy and adopt. But the negative lessons are just as valuable. Most lab experiments fail, and science learns as much from those as from those that finally succeed.

The accelerating out-migration from high-tax states (California prominent among them) is an instructive caution to governments elsewhere. The more extreme anti-law-enforcement policies have already demonstrated their absurdity, sadly at a tragic cost in human life.

Occasionally, actions work out so unfortunately that the jurisdiction reverses field itself. Kansas chose to undo tax reductions that went too far, and a number of cities are now refunding the same police they so recently defunded. But even where some poor citizens remain stuck with the consequences, folly in one place serves as a valuable caution to all the rest.

So, if California’s ham-handed approach to pig production takes effect, there will be a lot learned. One doubts the results will affirm its wisdom. This latest novelty from the once-Golden State almost certainly will fit in the “for heaven’s sake, don’t” category. But such mistakes, and the system that permits them and the teaching moments they provide, serve us all very well.