Bye Bye, Miss American Pie: In the first of five excerpts from his new book, Mark Steyn explains how bureaucrats have come to regulate every aspect of modern life — even the neighbourhood bake sale

Civil Liberties, Frontier Centre, Uncategorized, Worth A Look (historic)

On the first Friday of Lent 2009, a state inspector from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture raided the fish fry at St. Cecilia’s Catholic Church in Rochester. He had been there for his annual inspection of the church’s kitchen, but, while going about his work, he espied an elderly parishioner unwrapping some pies.

He swooped. Would these by any chance be homemade pies? Sergeant Joe Pieday wasn’t taking no for an answer. The perps fessed up:

Josie Reed had made her pumpkin pie.

Louise Humbert had made her raisin pie.

Mary Pratte had made her coconut cream pie.

And Marge Murtha had made her farm apple pie.

And, by selling their prohibited substances for a dollar a slice, these ladies and their accomplices were committing a criminal act. In the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, it is illegal for 88-year-old Mary Pratte to bake a pie in her kitchen for sale at a church fundraiser. The inspector declared that the baked goods could not be sold.

St. Cecilia’s holds a fish fry every Friday during Lent, and regular church suppers during the rest of the year. That’s a lot of pie to forego. What solutions might there be? The inspector informed the ladies they could continue baking pies at home if each paid a $35 fee for him to come ’round to her home and certify her kitchen as state-compliant. “Well, that’s just ridiculous,” Louise Humbert, 73, told The Wall Street Journal.

Alternatively, they could bake their pies in the state-inspected kitchen at the church. As anyone who bakes pies, as opposed to regulating them, could tell the inspector, if you attempt to replicate your family recipe in a strange oven, it doesn’t always turn out like it should.

A local bakery stepped in and donated some pies. But that’s not really the same, is it? Perhaps a more inventive solution is required. In simpler times, Sweeney Todd, purveyor of fine foodstuffs to Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop in Fleet Street, would have been proposing we drop the coconut cream and replace it with state-inspector pie, perhaps with a lattice crust, symbolizing the prison bars he ought to be behind. Problem solved. Easy as pie, as we used to say.

Instead, bye bye, Miss American Pie.

No matter how you slice it, this is tyranny. When I first came to my corner of New Hampshire, one of the small pleasures I took in my new state were the frequent bake sales — the Ladies’ Aid, the nursery school, the church rummage sale. Most of the muffins and cookies were good; some were exceptional; a few went down to sit in the stomach like overloaded barges at the bottom of the Suez Canal. But even then you admired if not the cooking then certainly the civic engagement. In a small but tangible way, a person who submits to a state pie regime is a subject, not a citizen — because participation is the essence of citizenship, and thus barriers to participation crowd out citizenship. A couple of kids with a lemonade stand are learning the rudiments not just of economic self-reliance but of civic identity. So naturally an ever multiplying number of jurisdictions have determined to put an end to such a quintessentially American institution.

Seven-year-old Julie Murphy was selling lemonade in Portland, Ore., when two officers demanded to see her “temporary restaurant licence.” Which would have cost her $120. When she failed to produce it, they threatened her with a $500 fine, and also made her cry. Perhaps like the officers of Saudi Arabia’s mutaween (the “Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vices”) the cheerless scolds of Permitstan could be issued with whips and scourges to flay the sinners in the street. When life hands you lemons, make lemonade — and then watch the state enforcers turn it back into sour fruit.

It is part of a sustained and all but explicit assault on civic participation, intended to leave government with a monopoly not just of power but of social legitimacy. So, while thanking that local bakery in Pennsylvania for their generosity in stepping up to the plate, we should note that, just as gun control is not about guns but control, so pie control is likewise not about pies, but about ever more total control.

Indeed, we do an injustice to ye medieval tyrants of yore. As Tocqueville wrote: “There was a time in Europe in which the law, as well as the consent of the people, clothed kings with a power almost without limits. But almost never did it happen that they made use of it.”

True. His Majesty was an absolute tyrant — in theory. But in practice he was in his palace hundreds of miles away. A pantalooned emissary might come prancing into your dooryard once every half-decade and give you a hard time, but for the most part you got on with your life relatively undisturbed. In Tocqueville’s words: “Although the entire government of the empire was concentrated in the hands of the emperor alone, and although he remained, in time of need, the arbiter of all things, the details of social life and of individual existence ordinarily escaped his control.”

Just so. You were the mean and worthless subject of a cruel and mercurial despot but, even if he wanted to, he lacked the means to microregulate your life in every aspect. Yet what would happen, Tocqueville wondered, if administrative capability were to evolve to make it possible “to subject all of his subjects to the details of a uniform set of regulations”?

That moment has now arrived. Thanks to computer technology, it’s easier than ever to subject the state’s subjects to “a uniform set of regulations.”

Back in the 1990s, Bill Clinton famously said, “The era of Big Government is over.” What we have instead is the era of lots and lots of itsy-bitsy, teensy-weensy morsels of small government that cumulatively add up to something bigger than the Biggest Government of all — a web of micro-tyrannies which, in their overbearing pettiness, ensnare you at every turn.

Marge Murtha can make an apple pie. What can a regime that criminalizes such a pie make? That’s easy: Big Government makes small citizens.

Like to mull that thought over a cup o’ joe? Sorry, I’d love to offer you one, but it’s illegal. With its uncanny ability to prioritize, California, land of Golden Statism for unionized bureaucrats, is cracking down on complimentary coffee. From the Ventura County Star:

“Ty Brann likes the neighborly feel of his local hardware store. The fourth-generation Ventura County resident and small business owner has been going to the B&B Do it Center on Mobile Avenue in Camarillo for many years…. So when he learned the county had told B&B it could no longer put out its usual box of doughnuts and coffee pot for the morning customers, Brann was taken aback.”

Dunno why. He lives in California. He surely knows by now everything you enjoy is either illegal or regulated up the wazoo. The Collins family had been putting a coffee pot on the counter for 15 years, as the previous owners of the store had done, too, and yeah, back through all the generations. But in California that’s an illegal act. The permit mullahs told Randy Collins that he needed to install stainless steel sinks with hot and cold water and a prep kitchen to handle the doughnuts. “What some establishments do is hire a mobile food preparation services or in some cases a coffee service,” explained Elizabeth Huff, “manager of community services” (very Orwellian) for the Ventura County Environmental Health Division. “Those establishments have permits and can operate in front of or even inside of the stores.”

Even inside? Gee, that’s big of you. “Those establishments have permits”? In California, what doesn’t? Commissar Huff added that there are a range of permits of varying costs. No doubt a plain instant coffee permit would be relatively simple, but if you wished to offer a decaf caramel macchiato with complimentary biscotti additional licences may be required.

“We’re certainly working with the health department,” said Mr. Collins.

“We want to be in compliance with the law.” Why? When the law says that it’s illegal for a storekeeper to offer his customer a cup of coffee, you should be proud to be in non-compliance. Otherwise, what the hell did you guys bother holding a revolution for? Say what you like about George III, but he didn’t prosecute the Boston Tea Party for unlicenced handling of beverage ingredients in a public place.

This is the reality of small business in America today. You don’t make the rules, you don’t get to vote for people who make the rules. But you have to work harder, pay more taxes, buy more permits, fill in more paperwork, contribute to the growth of an ever less favourable business environment, and prostrate yourself before the Commissar of Community Services — all for the privilege of taking home less and less money.

The prohibition of nonstate-licenced coffee is a small but palpable loss to civic life — a genuine community service, as opposed to those “Community Services” of which Elizabeth Huff is the state-designated “manager.” Randy Collins and the other taxpayers of Ventura County pay Commissar Huff’s salary. I would wager that, like most small business owners, the Collins family work hard. They take fewer vacations and receive fewer benefits than Commissar Huff. They will retire later and on a smaller pension. Yet they pay for her. Big Government requires enough of a doughnut to pay for the hole: you take as much dough as you can get away with and toss it into the big gaping nullity of micro-regulation. And it’s never enough. And eventually you wake up and find your state is all hole and no doughnut. Excerpted from the recently released book After America: Get Ready For Armageddon by Mark Steyn. Reprinted with permission of Regnery Publishing, Inc. © Mark Steyn 2011.