When I taught my first agricultural economics class, it happened to be at the peak of the 1998-99 hog industry crisis. I told my students, “Your parents don’t have a Constitutional right to raise hogs.” It was true then, is now, and should continue to be. But largely not for the reasons opponents of Missouri Amendment 1 claim.
You see, a Constitutional right implies an obligation, either positive or negative or both, on the government. For instance, the right to vote requires the government to make it possible for every adult to vote (a positive obligation) and prohibits the government from doing things that impede persons’ rights to vote (a negative obligation). The US Constitution’s 1st Amendment rights to religious freedom, free speech, etc., and the 2nd Amendment are expressed in the Constitution as negative obligations; e.g., “Congress shall make no law…,” or “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” But ultimately, the role of the Constitution is to put limits on what the government can, can’t–and must–do.
The text of Constitutional Amendment 1.
CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT #1
Section 35. That agriculture which provides food, energy, health benefits, and security is the foundation and stabilizing force of Missouri’s economy. To protect this vital sector of Missouri’s economy, the right of farmers and ranchers to engage in farming and ranching practices shall be forever guaranteed in this state, subject to duly authorized powers, if any, conferred by article VI of the Constitution of Missouri. – See more at: http://www.mofb.org/KeepMissouriFarming.aspx#sthash.fca5gKo6.dpuf
The first problem with Missouri Amendment 1 is that it is not clear what obligations it imposes on the government, whether positive or negative. Opponents have argued, with rather disingenuous scare tactics, that the Amendment creates a negative obligation that would prohibit the State from regulating the agriculture industry in any way, leaving agricultural producers with free rein to abuse the animals they produce and the land and watersheds they work. Not only is that a grossly unfair and inaccurate characterization of the agriculture industry, it is also clearly not true. As with any other Constitutional right, the ability to exercise those rights is balanced against the public welfare interests of the State. Yes, the standard is higher in considering what limits are appropriate, but the State clearly would still have a role in prohibiting the Armageddon-like outcomes opponents warn against.
What has not been asked is what positive obligations Amendment 1 creates. If farmers and ranchers have a Constitutional right to engage in farming and ranching practices, what is the obligation of the State to affirmatively protect that right? Does it mean the State must further subsidize farmers and the farm industry, which is already one of the most heavily subsidized industries in the US? Does it mean the State must guarantee that farmers can continue to be farmers no matter what economic conditions might dictate? Does it mean contracts to foreclose on farming operations would become unconstitutional? Is it an individual right entitling each specific farmer to be a farmer forever, or is it a group right that protects farming as a productive operation. The language of the amendment itself provides no clear answer.
And what would be the consequences of the kinds of protections possible under the proposed amendment? Opponents have focused on anti-corporate bigotry and xenophobic scare tactics. However, more meaningful questions could be raised about the consequences for innovation in agricultural practices that improve food quality and supply but that might disrupt or challenge current practices and threaten to displace some producers. Or about the incentive for the agriculture industry to be innovative in its environmental practices and technologies—not in the sense that waterways would become toxic, like opponents suggest, but that there may be less incentive to developing new technologies and practices that do an even better job than current practices. Or about the incentive of the agriculture industry—and individual producers—to be sensitive and responsive to neighbors’ (and voters’) interests and concerns.
Finally, does it make sense to single out one profession or one sector of the economy as being worthy of Constitutional protection? Especially when there are already laws that provide the kinds of protections proponents of Amendment 1 want? Why is farming special compared to nursing, teaching, childcare, or any number of “socially valuable” industries (as if other professions are any less meritorious)? Proponents of Amendment 1 will rightly argue that agriculture has been under attack by special interest groups that take advantage of a voting public that lives in romanticized ignorance of the industry that produces their beloved burgers and bacon. However, the solution to that problem is not to further insulate the industry from the voting public, but to be more vigilant in educating the public and State officials in the face of anti-farming interests.
The Missouri Constitution is not the place for industries or professions to hide from competitive pressures—whether economic or ideological.