Missouri voters have the opportunity August 5 to add a “right to farm” provision to the Missouri Constitution. The wording on the ballot is this:
“Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to ensure that the right of Missouri citizens to engage in agricultural production and ranching practices shall not be infringed?”
The text of the proposed amendment as taken from the House and Senate resolutions:
Section A. Article I, Constitution of Missouri, is amended by adding thereto one new section, to be known as section 35, to read as follows: 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.
We have five principal objections to this proposal:
- It continues a deplorable trend to constitutionalize political disputes
- It addresses a non-problem
- The legislature should have addressed this issue with legislation
- Constitutionalizing political issues invites court challenges and tit-for-tat amendments
- If the amendment can prevent bad regulation, it can also prevent good regulation
One would think that the motivation behind this amendment is a response to a powerful movement to ban farming. There is of course no such movement and the odds of farming ever being banned are nil. Some people apparently have been led to believe that the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is in a position to ban the eating of meat. Ridiculous. Scare tactics abound on both sides of this issue. The issue is not farming, it is which ‘farming practices’ may be regulated. And this is a question of detail, to be decided politically, and completely out of constitutional scope. We all know that if government has the power to do good, it also can do evil. No constitutional provision can preserve us from bad government.
Rep. Jason Smith, a Republican from Salem who sponsored the amendment, said here that constitutional change is needed to protect Missouri farmers from out-of-state animal rights groups and “environmental extremists.”
Out-of-state groups only have power to the extent that they are able to influence our elected officials. By a lopsided vote the legislature avoided its responsibilities and punted, sending this issue to the voters. This amounts to saying that the legislature does not trust itself to do the right thing now or in future.
In our view the Constitution should be a broad, coherent statement of the fundamental principles defining our polity; not a set of policy statements, but the framework within which specific policies may legitimately be derived. While our minds and bodies change as we age, the DNA defining our structure remains the same. The Constitution should be similar to our DNA.. Put another way, principles and policies with significant disagreement or opposition, particularly those with numbers or percentages, which would function like autoimmune disease, have no place in the Constitution.
Thus it is the job of the legislature to apply constitutional principles to specific problem areas, such as reasonable regulation of economic activity, including farming. But the Bill of Rights of the Missouri Constitution already protects farming in this clause:
“all persons have a natural right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and the enjoyment of the gains of their own industry,”
We see no need to protect something that is already protected.
The environmental extremists Rep. Smith decries are Federal. They are a real threat. But the Missouri Constitution will not deter them. Bitter experience teaches that Federal courts have no respect for state constitutions when they conflict with their personal preferences. Even the Missouri Supreme Court has been wayward – a great reason for reforming the Missouri Plan.
The language of the amendment is rather ambiguous – the result of legislative ‘compromise.’ This is an invitation to meddling by courts. Does the amendment ‘forever guarantee’ farmers the unalienable right to farm in any manner whatsoever? Or is there a place for state and local regulation deriving from the ‘duly authorized powers’ of article VI? We now would have duelling provisions, which would need to be resolved. But once in the Constitution, resolution is taken outside of the political process and thrown into the courts. Need we add that courts are among the worst ways to settle political disputes?
Prof. Josh Hawley, the founder of the Missouri Liberty Project and a person we respect, has a different point of view. We agree with his encomium of farmers and farming, but disagree that a redundant and ambiguous constitutional amendment is called for.