Beef might be what’s for dinner, but who should pay for making that suggestion to American consumers? That’s the question at the heart of arguments heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday.
The case involves what’s called the beef checkoff program, in which cattle ranchers pay the federal government $1 per head when they sell their stock. The money goes into a fund used to promote beef as a valuable part of our diet. The most well known of the promotions are the “Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner” spots we see on television.
The tagline on the commercials reads, “Funded by America’s Beef Producers.” That’s what has some ranchers riled up enough to make a federal case out of it.
Wyoming rancher Skip Waters says the program forces ranchers to pay while meat packers and retailers get most of the benefits from the ads. Other ranchers object to the program because the ads don’t specify that it’s American beef folks should be eating, so they’re forced to subsidize beef imports.
These are valid points, but they miss what’s really wrong with the beef checkoff program and hundreds of similar state and federal programs that promote agricultural products — everything from eggs to mohair. The question the Supreme Court should be asking is “Why is the government getting involved in promoting any kind of consumer goods?”
Critics of checkoff programs say they’re being forced by the feds to pay for ads they oppose, and they see that as a violation of their First Amendment right of free speech. Lower federal courts have agreed with them, but those rulings are on hold pending the Supreme Court’s decision. The feds have argued that checkoff programs benefit producers by pooling their resources to promote their products. That makes good sense from a marketing standpoint, but farmers and ranchers are free to form voluntary associations to promote their goods without government getting involved.
One federal attorney argued the beef checkoff is a way for the government to help the industry keep customers and attract new ones. It’s a stretch of the Constitution’s interstate commerce clause or the general welfare clause to try to fit checkoff programs under either rubric, but we wouldn’t put it past the feds to try.
And where does it end? Will the feds set up a checkoff program for lawnmowers or electrical fixtures?
To fend off the First Amendment arguments of critics, government attorney Edwin S. Kneedler told the justices that because Congress had instituted checkoff programs to get out the message that eating beef is good, the ads are “government speech” and are not subject to the First Amendment. Several members of the court didn’t appear to buy that argument.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wondered how one part of the government could justify promoting beef consumption while another urges moderation in consumption. Justice Anthony Kennedy seemed to think program funds should come from general tax revenue rather than a targeted group of taxpayers.
We’d prefer the government got out of the promotion business altogether. If members of any industry wish to form associations to promote their industry or product, and to look out for the welfare of their members, they are perfectly free to do so. Such organizations are formed all the time in the business world.
Government should have no part in promoting one industry over another. In fact, its involvement often lends an implied stamp of approval for many consumers. They believe that if the government says something is good, well, it must be.
There’s a difference between providing information consumers can use to make buying decisions and leaning on consumers to make a specific decision. It might be justifiable for government labs to perform crash tests to determine the relative safety of different car models, but people would rightly complain if the feds came right out and tried to persuade drivers to buy one minivan over another. Why should it be any different for beef and other agricultural products?