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Bureaucrats: Another Breed of Cat

January 18, 2007

Tags Big GovernmentFree MarketsInterventionism

Those who disparage the ideas of deregulation and limited government claim that we need a large activist government to reign in the excesses of capitalism. Such persons trust government bureaucrats to enforce regulations in a responsible manner. The actual record of big government indicates that such trust in government is unfounded.

One of the latest examples of bureaucratic excess involves the Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West, Florida. The Hemingway Home is famous for its six-toed cats, about fifty of them. These cats are descended from Ernest Hemingway's own six-toed cat. These cats have been a tourist attraction at the Hemingway Home and Museum for decades. Visitors to the Hemingway Home obviously have no objection to these cats, and the caretakers of the Hemingway Home do control the size of their cat population. Yet the Federal Government has recently moved to regulate these cats.

According to the USDA, the Hemingway Home is an exhibitor of cats, and must hold a USDA animal welfare license. Ordinarily, such licenses apply to circuses or zoos, which hold animals as exhibits. Yet this is not the case with the Hemingway cats. These cats live in this place. While visitors to the Hemingway Home are clearly interested in these cats, this is incidental. These cats are in the home where they and their ancestors have lived since 1935, not on display.

The USDA has repeatedly denied the Hemingway Home applications for such a license. USDA inspectors have conducted an intensive investigation of the Hemingway cats (since October 2003), and have never claimed that there is any problem with the health, safety, or welfare of these cats. Why then have they denied all license applications in this case?

The USDA insists that these cats be confined, restricted from roaming. A six foot stone wall surrounds the grounds of the Hemingway Home. Yet USDA inspectors have deemed this wall insufficient. They want to throw these cats into cages. The USDA has also suggested the installation of an electric fence around the Hemingway Home premises.

How is it that a law intended to promote animal welfare could lead to cats being caged or shocked with electricity? Government regulations often have unintended consequences. The Animal Welfare Act passed in 1966, and has been amended several times. The proponents of this law probably had good intentions. Yet the empowerment of bureaucrats often leads to abuse by overzealous officials, even though they may intend to promote welfare (human or feline).

Ludwig von Mises (1944) analyzed such problems with bureaucracy. The Hemingway Home was established as a private Museum by Key West Businesswoman Bernice Dickson. As such, it operates through revenue as a museum and banquet hall. The operations of the Hemingway Home are subject to the test of profit and loss. The USDA is part of our massive federal bureaucracy. As a taxpayer-funded institution, the USDA is not subject to profit and loss. The USDA is attempting to regulate the operations of the Hemingway House without any reference to profits. Profits are important because they represent the usefulness of an organization.

The Hemingway House provides services to consumers, who pay enough for these services to keep this organization in operation. In economic terms, the Hemingway House meets the opportunity costs of its own operation. The Animal Welfare Act may have been well intended, however, the judgments of USDA inspectors are personal value judgments only. The ability of the Hemingway to succeed as a private organization indicates that it improves the welfare of the consuming public. People value the use of particular scarce resources (e.g., caretaker labor, cat food) in operating the Hemingway Home more than in any alternative uses. Consequently, there is no quantifiable reason to believe that these cats harm the consuming public.

The cats themselves are not being harmed by the Hemingway Home caretakers. Rather it is the USDA that wants to confine and mistreat these animals. Furthermore, the USDA does not claim that the cats themselves are being harmed or endangered. The only basis for believing that there is a problem with the Hemingway Home derives from the arbitrary and personal value judgments of some USDA inspectors. Whose judgment should we trust, the multitudes in the consuming public or some petty bureaucrats?

The USDA has made one judgment of monetary value. The penalty for violating the Animal Welfare and Act is $200 per day per cat — ten thousand dollars per day. As a small enterprise, the Hemingway will likely be bankrupted by such fines. The caretakers of the Hemingway House sued to stop USDA harassment of the Hemingway Home and its cats. Unfortunately, District Court Judge K. Michael Moore dismissed the museum's suit. According to this judge, the Hemingway Home caretakers should first pursue remedies in administrative hearings and appeals.

It is fairly obvious that the caretakers of the Hemingway Home are more interested in the welfare of these cats, and that the consuming public supports this enterprise. USDA harassment of the Hemingway Cats is an example of bureaucratic excess.

Federal authority extends to all of us. We all live under the threat of bureaucratic excess, and all too often this threat is realized. Furthermore, bureaucratization works to override the preferences of the consuming public. Capitalism is superior to state control because it places the interests of the consuming public above all else, while an activist regulatory state subjects consumers to bureaucratic whims.

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