Deadliest Impediment to Freedom: Tyranny on the High Seas

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

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