The Bean Caper

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Young thinks about coffee a lot. He has time to do so because, only
about a year out of law school, he's been laid off by the law firm
which had hired him. "When I'm drinking my coffee," he
declares, "I'd rather not be destroying the environment or
exploiting workers." Three cheers for you, Rick!

neophyte lawyer isn't content with merely saving the environment
and the workers all by himself, however. He wants us to do so also.
In fact, he wants to force us to do so, and to this end has introduced
a law in Berkeley, where he lives, that would prohibit the many coffee
houses in that city from selling any coffee which was not produced
the way he thinks it should be: "fair-trade," organic,
and shade-grown. As a lawyer, he realizes that government exists
to force people to live the way he, and other enlightened individuals,
think they should. Make no mistake, force is what it's all about.
Coffee which suits Mr. Young's criteria is available now, but constitutes
only about 1 percent of the 18 million bags of coffee beans imported
annually. Obviously, left to their own resources, people will make
the wrong choices, but Mr. Young will set them right – or else.

the whole brouhaha is scarcely about coffee at all. It's about ideology,
with coffee merely serving as the justification. "Fair-trade,"
for example, refers to coffee grown by farmers who are paid a living
wage, but certainly Mr. Young isn't concerned only about coffee
farmers, is he? Should they be paid better than other farmers? No,
but the coffee farmers are an opening shot, and coffee houses are
conspicuous in Berkeley. Tobacco farmers, on the other hand, can
just starve, unless they want to switch to coffee. Of course, that
might tend to produce a coffee glut with falling prices, but maybe
another law could be passed requiring people to drink twice as much
coffee. There's never a problem that government, i.e., force, cannot

words actually mean what they say, as I naively like to think they
do, then the problem of coffee farmers not receiving a living wage
would solve itself as the unfortunate farmers, well, died! If the
term "living wage" is an exaggeration, and the farmers
receiving less than that amount are not actually starving, but nearly
so, then they might consider going into another line of work, rather
than hoping that someone like Mr. Young will come along to force
people to drink more expensive coffee.

Young would also like to force the coffee shops to sell only "organic"
coffee, meaning coffee grown sans herbicides, pesticides, or fungicides.
The organic movement has been around long enough to teach us that
raising crops organically means lower yields per acre, with no compensating
benefits of better taste or nutrition. The distinguishing feature
of organically grown produce is its higher cost.

"shade-grown" coffee simply refers to coffee beans grown
on plants shaded by a canopy of taller trees. The "benefit"
of this technique is that the tree canopy provides a habitat for
more than 150 species of migratory birds. Obviously this has nothing
to do with coffee per se, but with birds. What would happen to these
birds without the canopy? We're not told, but the obvious conclusion
we're expected to draw is that it would be avian catastrophe! It
would be highly improper to doubt it, of course.

fact, the whole scheme is based upon rather wishful thinking, and
forcefully stated, but unproven, ideas. Organic farming, as I've
mentioned, offers no advantages over traditional farming, and significant
disadvantages. We're told that the shade-grown coffee would provide
habitat to 150 species of birds, and we have to take that on faith,
along with the assumption that the birds would suffer horribly if
the coffee were raised without such a canopy. It is reasonable to
assume that coffee plants grown out in the open provide habitat
for various critters who would not do as well under a canopy, but
they're out of luck until some group comes along to assist them
– at our expense.

the "fair-trade" many farmers have done what you would
reasonably expect them to do: switch to another crop. The crop chosen
by many is coca. Well, we can't have that! Coca is most definitely
not a politically correct crop. No, the farmers have got to stick
with their coffee, and the drinkers have got to pay more. Caffeine,
si!, coca, no! What could be simpler, or more logical? Free choice,
like free markets, is simply unthinkable to Mr. Young and the 3000
naïve Berkeleyites who've signed his petition to put the coffee
bean on the ballot in Berkeley.

admits his proposals are rather radical, but reminds us that "When
you look at seat-belt laws, that was shocking – people freaked
out. But now people accept it as a matter of course." No doubt
the frog would have "freaked out" at the thought of being
placed in a pot of boiling water, but accepted as a matter of course
the soothing, warm water – that was gradually heated.

people of their freedom in a single fell swoop, and at least some
of them will object, perhaps violently so. But inch it away gradually,
over issues not worth fighting about, like coffee, or seat belts,
and they'll grow to accept the idea "as a matter of course."
In fact, the 3000 mush-brained idiots who've signed Young's petition
prove it.

9, 2002

Hein [send
him mail
] is a semi-retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis,
and the author of All
Work & No Pay
, which will soon be available at

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