Joel Salatin’s new book, Everything I Want to Do is Illegal, is now available from Cumberland Books. It was inspired by an essay of the same name that Salatin wrote four years ago, an essay which serves as the first chapter of the book. That essay is by far the most widely known of Salatin’s writings, because its topic is of interest to all of us, agrarian or otherwise—the wicked burdens imposed on citizens by the modern bureaucratic nanny state.
I read the book about a week ago, more or less in one long sitting; although it is 352 pages long, it is easy reading, and if you are familiar with Salatin’s other writings there are parts that can be quickly skimmed without losing the main point. Since reading the book, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, and the more I try to trace out its implications the deeper I find myself going. Over the past week I’ve sketched out several weblog posts based on that thinking, but none of them are ready to be written yet. Still, I need to say something about the book now (if just to announce that it is available), and so here are a few thoughts.
The book is a collection of horror stories, recounting Salatin’s various run-ins with the state and federal authorities who want to restrict his ability to sell food. The involvement of food is incidental; although eating may be subject to heavier and more senseless regulation by the state than most other social activities, the conflicts Salatin describes do not arise from the nature of food but from the law of unintended consequences, and as such they are relevant to anyone who needs to interact with the modern bureaucratic nanny state.
The stories themselves are ridiculous, and are retold by Salatin in a lighthearted and often baffled way. And as a result there is, in fact, a danger of taking the stories too lightly, just more fodder for the “ain’t it awful” conversations with which we love to while away an evening. But if you keep in mind that all these horrible things really happened to the Salatins, to people who are trying to get healthy food to their customers, precisely because they are trying to get healthy food to their customers—well, the stories then quickly become oppressive, and it becomes hard to read more than a couple of chapters without setting down the book in impotent frustration.
A worse danger, though, than taking the book too lightly would be to allow it to stoke one’s righteous indignation. The consequences of the food laws, and the behavior of the bureaucrats who enforce them, is so foolish that one is tempted to think that if only the good-hearted and sensible American public became aware of what was really going on, we could all pull together to clean up this mess. To some extent, Salatin succumbs to this temptation by repeatedly comparing the current deplorable situation to the way it was, or the way it ought to be, and suggesting that if we could just return to a simpler, more sensible approach then stories like these would no longer be told. I think he is dead wrong about this, but in the end it doesn’t matter much because the book is not a clarion call to fix the system—Salatin is a generally apolitical, very practical man who is mostly concerned with being able to do what he thinks is right, and what he proposes to his reader is not that they get involved with fixing the system, but that they find ways to stay as uninvolved with the authorities as possible.
A weakness of this book, but only a minor one, is that it doesn’t really close the deal by proposing a path out of the mess. In fact, that may not be a weakness but a strength. One of the things that makes Neil Postman’s books so valuable is that he concentrates on telling what he knows, namely why modern society is the way that it is, and slights the part that he doesn’t know, namely how to fix it. We should read Postman’s books not in search of a solution, but in search of insights into a situation that will help us formulate our own responses to it. The value of Salatin’s book is exactly the same; it helps us to see exactly what damage the bureaucratic state is currently doing, but leaves it up to us to figure out how to structure our lives in light of that knowledge.
Summary: Everything I Want to Do is Illegal is a very good book, and important reading for anyone who doesn’t understand that the state is the enemy of the free man. But it doesn’t present a way out of the current mess. That, I think, will be found in a careful and thoughtful reading of Salatin’s Family Friendly Farming.