Today the Wall Street Journal reports again on startling examples of overcriminalization, with federal authorities conducting raids on businesses based on aggressive enforcement of broad and vague laws.
This time it’s the famous Gibson Guitar company, which is charged with importing wood that may have been illegally harvested. But individual guitar owners are targeted, too, if they travel across international borders with a guitar that might possibly have been made from banned wood. If the traveler doesn’t have the proper documentation, the guitar might be seized. As a result, a law professor says he doesn’t leave the country with a wooden guitar.
Gibson had tried to comply with the law. It had used the services of Forest Stewardship Council, an organization that, according to its website, provides a certification service: “FSC certification provides a credible link between responsible production and consumption of forest products, enabling consumers and businesses to make purchasing decisions that benefit people and the environment as well as providing ongoing business value.”
According to Gibson, FSC certification means the wood was not obtained illegally.
The law under which Gibson is charged, the Lacey Act, creates many problems for U.S. importers. According to Gibson, “The U.S. Lacey Act does not directly address conservation issues but is about obeying all laws of the countries from which wood products are procured. This law reads that you are guilty if you did not observe a law even though you had no knowledge of that law in a foreign country. The U.S. Lacey Act is only applicable when a foreign law has been violated.”Gibson says it has statements and documents that wood seized in an earlier raid was legally exported from Madagascar. That’s right — this is not the first time for Gibson, and the earlier case is still pending.
Interestingly, the wood that is in controversy — Madagascar ebony — provides an example of how lack of property rights causes shortages of a desirable product. Further, this is an example of how lack of property rights and economic freedom keeps a country poor, instead of being able to benefit from its natural resources.
Among the countries of the world, Madagascar ranks very low in legal structure and property rights. According to the 2011 Index of Economic Freedom for Madagascar compiled by the Heritage Foundation and Wall Street Journal: “Secured interests in property are poorly enforced. Restrictions on land ownership by foreigners impede investment. … The judiciary is influenced by the executive and subject to corruption, and investors face a legal and judicial environment in which the enforcement of contracts cannot be guaranteed. … Corruption is perceived as widespread. ”
This illustrates the importance of economic freedom, which is rooted in property rights and respect for the ability of parties to contract. When property rights are not felt to be secure and people believe that the government will not enforce contracts, it’s difficult to get people to make investments, especially in things like trees that require investment and stewardship over a period of years. Who will nurture trees for decades to maturity, only for them to be stolen, either by a corrupt government or by thieves who have no fear that the government will protect the property of others?