Deadliest Impediment to Freedom: Tyranny on the High Seas

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Deadliest
Catch
,
airing from 7:00–10:00 PM ET Tuesdays on the Discovery Channel,
is an exciting documentary series chronicling the events aboard
five fishing ships during the Alaskan king crab and Opilio crab
seasons in October and January. As the name implies, the show focuses
on the danger of the job. Indeed, the ship Big Valley, whose captain
was interviewed in the first season, sank on January 16th, 2005,
killing five of the six crew.

Because of
the risks and the value of the catch, this important industry, which
has harvested approximately $1.6 billion worth of crab since 1959,
gives fisherman a chance to make tens of thousands of dollars in
just a few weeks. Captain
Phil Harris
of the Cornelia Marie succinctly describes his job's
importance to him:

You go through
a couple marriages, smoke cigarettes like it’s going out of style,
your body aches from the time you get up to the time you go to
bed, and you wake up in the middle of the night thinking about
where you’re going to put the next pot [crab trap]. Yeah, it’s
a great lifestyle.

Of course,
the Land
of the Licensed
cannot let this productivity and commitment
go unchecked. On the episode that aired last Tuesday, Captain
Eric Nyhammer
, who was already facing fines for bringing more
crabs than his quota allowed, was prevented from leaving port by
two thugs from the Commerce Department. "Where you heading?"
they ask. Naturally, Nyhammer replies, "We have to go back
out and go fishing."

"That's
a no can do," the Commerce official declares. Why? Because
when you return to port, the regulations say, you must unload all
of your catch. Nyhammer was only planning on unloading a portion
of his. As government regulations are arbitrary, ambiguous, and
ever-changing, the experienced fisherman had never heard of this
asinine rule. He complains, "That is screwed up. We come out
here to try to make a living and work so that the state of Alaska
can have this industry and now I'm the bad guy?" According
to the law, exactly.

The 75,000
pages of the Code of Federal Regulations and its counterparts in
state and local governments make criminals out of honest and industrious
people. The Alaska Department
of Fish and Game's website
is, alone, filled with pages and
pages of licensing requirements and of regulations that "may
be changed by emergency regulations or emergency orders at any time."
Without notice.

This setback
was not Nyhammer's first run-in with the government this season.
On a previous episode, his ship, the Rollo, was unexpectedly boarded
by a Coast Guard team. I have experienced similar inspections (albeit
on a much smaller scale) at the hands of the Army Corps of Engineers
(which is, by the way, one
of the most corrupt organizations in the US government
) in my
family's motor boat. You sit there as they go through your things
(for no reason, this is a random inspection), wondering if they
are going to cut your trip short or fine you. When they leave everyone
breathes a sigh of relief. Yet, for Nyhammer, this was not Sunday
afternoon on the lake. Despite the fact that he had committed no
crime, his livelihood was at the complete mercy of the Coast Guard.
One violation and the season would have been over; the fishermen's
families would have to look for other ways to pay their rent and
feed themselves. Luckily, the Coast Guard officials were relatively
professional and none were in a bad enough mood to find something
wrong; but we all know that with all those pages of regulations,
if they wanted to find something wrong, they could have.

My friends
with whom I was watching the show retorted by pointing how the Coast
Guard protects the fishermen and saves them from natural disasters
and such. That's fine, but in a free society, no arbitrary authority
would have the power to protect anyone from themselves. As John
Stuart Mill eloquently stated,

the only
purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member
of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm
to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient
warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because
it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier,
because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or
even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him,
or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but
not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil, in case
he do otherwise.

If only…

June
13, 2006

Eric
Phillips [send him mail]
studies history and economics at the George Washington University.

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