THE eighteenth century Scottish philosopher, David Hume, wrote that once laws for protecting private property were established, “there remains little or nothing to be done towards settling a perfect harmony and concord.”
When it comes to businesses that involve the production of livestock products for food, animal rights activists and their cheerleaders in the Greens do not respect private property. They insist they have a right to enter the property, take photos and videos, misrepresent what they see, and pass it on to sympathetic and gullible members of the media.
Their argument is that animal rights outweigh all other rights and that companies have no right to privacy.
State and federal governments are now contemplating measures to clamp down on this activity. The NSW Primary Industries Minister recently described such people as ‘terrorists’.
There are laws in several US states that outlaw such covert filming. An article in the New York Times described the laws as making it illegal for employees to covertly videotape livestock farms, or apply for jobs at related businesses, without disclosing ties to animal rights groups. Any videos which are claimed to disclose ill treatment of animals must also be handed to authorities almost immediately.
One law, “The Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act,” prohibits the filming or taking of pictures on livestock farms to “defame the facility or its owner” with any violators placed on a “terrorist registry”.
The laws are said to have helped curtail such activism in those states, and more states are contemplating introducing laws of their own.
There are objective reasons why farm intrusions are undesirable, including animal welfare. Some animals, particularly broiler chickens, are easily panicked by strangers and prone to pile up in corners where they crush each other to death. Pigs can also behave undesirably when frightened, while dairy cows stop releasing their milk and tend to release an almost endless supply of manure.
There is also the question of biosecurity. Most farms, especially pig and poultry farms, maintain strict quarantine to keep out unwanted diseases. It’s a very important part of keeping the animals healthy so they don’t require antibiotics or other medications. Unwelcome visitors to the farm can carry all kinds of bugs.
And of course there is a commercial penalty incurred when the public believes the propaganda issued by the activists and avoids buying the food involved. There is rarely any opportunity to correct the public record once the emotive images are broadcast.
The activists argue from the perspective that the end justifies the means, labelling poultry, pig and dairy farms as factory farms and insisting they are inherently cruel. Capturing and exposing this ‘cruelty’ on video, they claim, is the only way of ensuring it ceases.
They maintain there are civil rights at stake and claim the public has a right to know ‘what happens behind closed doors’, and ‘consumers have a right to know the conditions under which animals are raised and slaughtered.’ They insist the US type laws are an attack on free speech, referring to them as ‘ag-gag’ laws.
What they do not disclose is that, like those who attack live exports (who are mostly the same people), their objective is to stop people from eating meat. Or that in their authoritarian world, coercion and violation of property rights are legitimate tools in the pursuit of their goals.
Their rights-based claim is ridiculous. The public has no more right to know what goes on in a piggery than in a family home. Indeed, the activists would be the first to complain if their own homes were broken into and the management of their children filmed. And yet it could easily be argued that the public has a greater right to know about the rights of children than animal rights.
And while we place a high value on animal welfare and expect genuine cruelty to be disclosed and those responsible held to account, cruelty is primarily an individual failing rather than an organisational deficiency. Yet it is ‘corporations’ that are targeted by the activists, exposing their anti-capitalist attitudes.
There is a case for doing something to stop these people. With their fanaticism they are impervious to social disapproval. The question is whether our governments should adopt a similar legislative approach to that taken in America. While it is obvious the activists have no respect for the rights of those they are targeting, we should not invite laws that undermine our rights.
In particular, the claim by the activists that such laws threaten their free speech should not become reality. Free speech means nothing unless it includes those we don’t want to listen to. We also do not want to suppress the reporting of cruelty.
A general obligation to report cruelty as soon as it is identified might be an option, accompanied by a condition that those lodging reports later found to be false and malicious could be held liable for any damage they cause. That would leave genuine whistle blowers with nothing to fear, but mischief makers would find it expensive.
But for promoting ‘harmony and concord’ it may be best to focus on upholding private property rights. In earlier years the law would have permitted property owners to wield a shotgun to deal with malicious trespassers.
Governments now claim the sole right to deal with such criminals, which leads to the thought that perhaps it is time to create a specific, serious offence of entering a piggery, poultry farm, dairy farm or abattoir without permission. And for employees of these premises, a legal obligation not to harm the property of their employers may be an option.
There are sure to be ways in which property rights can be protected without infringing other rights.