A Burnt Offering

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The
livestock funeral pyres continue to burn as the foot and mouth plague
continues its inexorable march across the British countryside and
now into mainland Europe. Over two hundred and forty cases identified
and about 180,000 livestock incinerated so far as UK farmers stare
bankruptcy in the face and related sectors face financial pressure.

Enter
the British government.

The
State here in Britain has had a long love affair with the farming
sector or, to be more precise, price controls and subsidies have
propped up an industry which has never been allowed to face the
ruthless probings of free market forces. For ever since the Nazi
U-boats threatened to starve Britain of imports, guaranteed food
production has been a shibboleth to the State.

Also
add to this the socialist forces of the European Union's Common
Agricultural Policy (CAP) with their rancid butter mountains and
vinegarated wine lakes eating up a huge portion of the EU budget.
But for once CAP plays no major part in this epidemic (though one
could wax lyrical about their ridiculous policies of price support,
interventionism, and export/import tariffs).

The
truth is that State intervention has turned this into an economic
plague as well, for the British government has guaranteed to pay
compensation to every farmer for every animal slaughtered. The promise
of this payment can only lead to one thing — the guaranteed slaughter
of the animals as farmers look for a financial escape exit.

The
Real World

If
the farmers were pushed into the real world and out of the fantasy
world of State welfare payments, then how would things work out
differently?

The
truth is that foot and mouth, to the majority of healthy animals,
is no worse than a bad dose of the flu, and they eventually recover.
The problem to the farmer is that the fatted calf is now not so
fatted and the time to market is lengthened and cash flow is threatened
due to a static (but convalescing) inventory and the extra cost
of animal feed.

Meanwhile,
the farmer with a healthy stock comes in and takes the customer
(normally the supermarkets) and our plagued farmer is found wanting
by the free market. Welcome to the real world.

Without
the safety net of government money, our unlucky farmer would have
to sell his stock at rock bottom prices or sit it out until the
plague runs it course. Since foot and mouth is a pretty rare event
with only two other British outbreaks in the last 40 years, he should
have considered taking insurance out against such an eventuality.
That we take such a thing for granted in protecting other business
assets seems lost on a sector which thinks it has a divine right
to State protection in which the taxpayer pays both the insurance
"premiums" and the compensation and gets nothing in return
expect charred carcasses and increased meat prices at the counter.

The
farming sector is in dire need of a free market shake-up. Pitiable
stories of farmers dependent on EU subsidies and inconveniently
high prices says only one thing — they should not be farmers at
all but should sell their land to property developers and take up
a life which is not causing a net loss to the economy. But, sadly,
after the debacle of trying to prop up falling beef prices after
the BSE scandal, it seems that nothing has been learnt at all by
farmer nor government.

A
question of freedom

But
the other and more worrying aspect of all this panic is the flexing
of the government's muscle in what they historically have been best
at — interfering with the liberty of the people. At the last count,
all Forestry Commission forests, national parks, and two-thirds
of all public footpaths in the countryside had been closed by decree
in an attempt to halt the progress of this disease.

What
is wearily displayed before us here is the old phenomenon of State
restriction allied with the new phenomenon of State obsession with
a zero-risk society. One could detail further the ban on certain
sports meetings such as horse-racing, zoos being closed and other
public assemblies to get the draconian picture and the economic
penalty on those who have very little to do with pig farms in distant
and isolated areas.

But
the classic symptom of this paranoia must be the forced slaughter
of animals which have been passed as healthy but whose crime was
to be located within a mile of even a minor outbreak of foot and
mouth. The government sees trouble where there is no trouble, where
quarantine is sufficient, the government interferes to the extreme.

It
is the old adage: "We must do something. This is something.
Let's do it!" With a general election only a matter of
months away and all those floating voters in rural areas watching
to see how the government reacts, it is not too surprising to see
how this zero-risk mania also applies to the short-term strategy
of winning votes.

Personal
responsibility

The
bottom line is that very few urbanites could be carriers and it
is doubtful as to the probability of them being near swine or bovine.
Replacing the child-like treatment of the State with personal responsibility
leads us to some conclusions.

Firstly,
that every farmer is responsible for his own livestock assets and
such self-interest should guarantee self-regulation and vigilance – staying away from the cattle markets until it blows over and taking
the necessary disinfectant procedures.

Secondly,
that other farmers who have an interest in knowing whose farms are
infected will ensure that such farms are ostracised until they prove
their fitness.

Thirdly,
that those who can be proven to have wilfully spread the disease
face the full force of litigation from their victims and are thus
deterred.

But
when one is treated like a child by the State, it is not surprising
that one eventually begins to think like a child.

In
conclusion, this minor plague will run its course but the devastation
to cattle will be all the work of the State guaranteeing payments
for pyres. To the god of State intervention has been sacrificed
a monstrous burnt offering indeed.

March
16, 2001

Roland
Watson writes from Scotland.

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