One of Monty Python’s more famous sketches is that of the Whizzo Chocolate Company, more commonly known as the Crunchy Frog skit. Mr. Hilton, proprietor of the aforementioned confection producer, is confronted by two members of the Hygiene squad, who eventually arrest him for violation of the Trade Descriptions Act. Apparently, the phrase “Spring Surprise” is an insufficient descriptor of a candy described as “covered in darkest, velvety smooth chocolate. When you pop it into your mouth, stainless steel bolts spring out and punch straight through both cheeks.”

An astute and politically minded observer would note that the officers, despite being from the Hygiene Squad, ultimately run the proprietor in not for health-related matters, but rather for labeling of a product that fails to disclose the harm it is intended to inflict. From a libertarian wonk’s viewpoint, it’s a fair argument – misrepresenting a product offered in a transaction is a contractual violation, and even staunch libertarians generally accept the State’s legitimate role in enforcement of contracts.

In the case of the Spring Surprise, there might even be a health-related justification for government intervention, due to the direct intent to cause undisclosed harm to the consumer. However, that justification didn’t extend to the first candy mentioned: the Cherry Fondue. Inspector Praline observe that it was “extremely nasty,” but they couldn’t prosecute the proprietor for that. In other words, a lousy product that doesn’t cause harm is not within the government’s purview.

Mr. Hilton acknowledges both the lack of government standing to prosecute him for the Cherry Fondue and the right to be taken in for the Spring Surprise. Knowing all this, we can turn our attention to a real and contemporary matter: the government’s interference in the sharing of food. Reason reports the plight of Kathy Hay of southeastern Washington State, who set up a “little free pantry,” a place where she (and others) can donate food to those in need, without having to go through the effort to build a structured charity. A cousin to the “little free library” movement, which has over 100,000 registered locations (including one in my neighborhood that I built at the behest of a neighbor who learned of the effort years back), it isn’t as widespread, but as of 2017 they numbered in the high hundreds. And, in some cases, little free libraries have been converted into little free pantries.

Our society has proven itself to be incredibly generous towards the needy – when it has been permitted to be. Alas, that turned out not to be the case for Ms. Hay, whose little free pantry was shut down, with prejudice, by the local health department. They informed her that she needed a license – to give food away on her own property. Furthermore, she’d have to abide by a slew of regulations and restrictions, including bans on fresh food and labeling requirements on packaged food. She’d have to review every donated item as well, which obviates the very concept of the pantry. And on and on.

That this is happening in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, with shutdowns and lockdowns spiking the need for such charity, is doubly insulting.

Presumably, Ms. Hay could invite people into her home for a meal, or to be given bags of stuff, without some government jack-boot kiboshing the assembly. But, apparently, she can’t set up a staging area for people who want to feed the needy to do so, not without a visit from today’s version of Inspector Praline and Constable Parrot. This should outrage you, and indeed it outraged the fine folks at the Institute for Justice enough to prompt a lawsuit on Ms. Hay’s behalf.

This bit prompted me to recall another bit of head-scratching nannyism by one of the biggest nannies of our modern age, former NYC Mayor and erstwhile Presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg. Back in 2012, Bloomberg’s health department issued an edict that food donations to city homeless shelters had to align with certain nutritional standards regarding salt, fat, and fiber content. This meant that a good Samaritan who’d been collecting surplus bagels for donation for decades was shut down by Nanny Mike’s minions, all in the name of keeping hungry people from eating what the mack-daddy-nanny felt they shouldn’t. Lest we forget, this is the guy who wanted to make sugary beverages more expensive so that the poor – whether they were overweight or not – could less afford them, and who turned New York City’s Heath Department into a Spanish Inquisition that put existential fear in the hearts of the city’s restaurant operators.

Unlike Monty Python’s Hygiene Squad, who narrowed their focus to proximately injurious foodstuffs, there’s nothing wrong with bread, or apples, or leftover chicken soup (Ms. Hay even had a refrigerator in her pantry). And, as to the question of how fresh Item X is, that could easily be sorted out without some helpful government goon levying fines and threatening prosecution. People have been managing their interactions with each other for millennia, and the charitable are ipso facto caring people who’d very likely respond to a request to put a “made on” date on a container of soup without duress. Or, someone could simply choose not to take something that he’s not comfortable eating.

Moreso, there’s the question of authority. What gives the government the right to intervene in a donation of food, and to set parameters by which that donation can be made? We’re not talking about tax stuff here – this isn’t about Ms. Hay looking to deduct here donations against her income. It’s a wholly voluntary interaction between people, with some giving that which they own to others. Where in the Constitution is the government authorized to interfere in that free association?

This is illustrative of a growing problem in our society. People increasingly feel that they have a right to interfere in others’ actions, no matter that those others neither ask for nor welcome that interference. This is the modern “white knight,” crusading on behalf of the supposedly benighted and oppressed. People also increasingly feel no problem with eschewing personal involvement in favor of an omnipotent government crusading on their behalf. “I think things should be X, but I want someone else to make it so.”

Excuses for this sort of nannyism-by-proxy are that desperate people don’t have the luxury of not taking assistance, that someone needs to watch out for them, lest they be… what? Poisoned by a do-gooder who isn’t down with the nutrition pyramid, or of a mind with Mayor Mike on others’ salt intake (Bloomberg admits to being a salt-aholic himself)? Apart from the fact that there are already laws against harming others, is it really the case that the poor would be better off with nothing rather than with bagels, bananas, or homemade soup?

Of course not. But, more to the point, you and I don’t have the right to make that decision on behalf of others, and others don’t have the right to make it for us. Not in a nation and society based on liberty and its protection, as ours was.

Not everyone agrees with me, of course. Many who covet power, or have a predilection to lording over others, or who simply feel they are smarter than the average person and thus have an obligation to do things on behalf of the less-smart, have no reservation in telling us we can’t feed others without their blessing and oversight. That they have gathered unto themselves the power to write near-endless laws and rules and regulations and restrictions in that and most other regards is a sign of how far we’ve drifted from the ideas of individual liberty and self-determination.

And, that a person like Bernie Sanders, who has voiced opposition to the concept of private charity itself, and who I suspect would regulate little free pantries out of existence were they catch his attention, would gain enough traction with the populace to be first runner up in a Presidential primary process, should be a giant red flag for us all.

You have the right to feed other people. If you are prevented from doing so, take a moment to consider what other rights have been similarly and unjustly infringed. And, if you feel outraged by what’s been done to Ms. Hay and her sense of charity, consider making or donating to a Little Free Pantry somewhere, and/or throw a few shekels in the direction of the Institute for Justice.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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