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The Criminalization of Free Enterprise

While I’ve been interacting with constituents and preparing for the upcoming legislative session, I have been appalled at the recent news reports out of Nashville and Memphis.


Gibson Guitars, the iconic manufacturer of the axes wielded by a wide variety of artists from Chet Atkins to B.B. King to Angus Young, has been raided for the second time in the past few years by armed agents of the federal government. Gibson's crime? Importing a certain type of wood for use in their guitars that may be illegal in a foreign country.


That’s right. Our government executed criminal warrants based on one interpretation of another country’s laws. This would be funny if it wasn’t so downright scary.


A federal raid is a not a small thing. It is a serious undertaking that has consequences for the business against whom it is conducted. Computers get forensically imaged, boxes of files are carted out. Employees are detained and questioned. Business can not be effectively conducted for days if not weeks afterward.


This kind of action can result in lost profits, lost jobs and the bankruptcy of a company. The economic consequences can be dire. Raids such as these should not be taken lightly.


Yet what was the stated need for overwhelming force in this case?


Basically, the federal government is suggesting that Gibson Guitar has violated the Lacey Act. It charges that Gibson imported wood from India that was illegal because it was “unfinished.” The wood is allegedly illegal not because of any law passed by Congress or any state legislature but because of an interpretation of Indian law.


Is this reason enough to hold hostage an employer of over 1200 people?


Even if one concedes the questionable merit of the Lacey Act, which requires American companies be bound by the law of foreign nations, the repeated targeting of one company in this fashion is abhorrent.


Our Constitution was written to ensure that the federal government’s power was not only limited but decentralized. The Founding Fathers wanted a government where no branch or agency of government could have too much power.


Looking at the Gibson case, the US Department of Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service has surely violated that founding tenet. As I mentioned, this is the second time the company has been raided by armed agents of Fish and Wildlife. No charges were ever filed in connection with the first raid in 2009 but the companies property has still not been returned.


Gibson, it should be noted, has provided evidence that the wood imported in both cases was completely authorized as legal by the countries exporting the wood.


What has been most concerning to me is the implicit assertion by the government that if this “unfinished” wood had been finished in India by Indian workers instead of at Gibson by American workers the company would have no legal problem.


It is almost as if the federal government is encouraging Gibson to do what many other companies have done for various reasons: Ship American jobs overseas. Gibson is one of the few major US companies that still produces a tangible product within America’s borders and the federal government targets them because they MAY have run afoul of a foreign law.


I fail to see the need for armed federal agents in a place of business like Gibson. This is not a criminal cartel, it a musical instrument manufacturer. The company does not thumb its nose at the law, in fact, the company and it’s CEO have clearly made their best efforts to stay within the law.


In fact, the only beef the Obama administration could really have with Gibson Guitars is the political habits of its CEO. Apparently, the head of Gibson has been very generous in his donations to Republican candidates and causes such as Congressman Marsha Blackburn and Sen. Lamar Alexander. One of Gibson’s chief competitors on the other hand prefers Democrat candidates. I hope this is simple coincidence and not something more sinister.


If Gibson Guitars has broken the law, they must pay required penalties. But the resources which have been brought to bear and the manner in which this company has been targeted amounts to a classic case of overreach and overkill.


In an ever increasing competitive global economy, the federal government should be looking for ways to assist and nurture American businesses - not seek to criminalize companies who provide high-paying jobs to American workers.