DANIEL VAUGHAN: A Steep Price: The 50-year Quest to Disband a Tea Board

 September 25, 2023

Milton Friedman, the economist, observed, "Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program." If he thought that was bad, he should have looked at the permanence of a government program that Congress tried to end. This week, we saw that the federal government finally closed down a government advisory board that Congress got rid of in... 1996.

This is a true story, not something out of the Babylon Bee, the Onion, or Ripley's Believe it or Not. The board in question was The Board of Tea Experts. Yes, tea. It was first established on March 2, 1897, by the Tea Importation Act of 1897.

According to the federal register, "The Board was responsible for making recommendations to the Secretary of the Treasury to fix and establish uniform standards of purity, quality, and fitness for consumption of all kinds of teas imported into the United States."

A Peculiar Persistence: The Board’s Long History

Allegedly, if you've had "good" or "bad" tea over the last century, you can thank this board. The tea experts in question did nothing but taste tea to make sure it was good. I'm sure this sounds like a dream job for some people. A 1965 article shows this office in a laboratory-type setting, complete with a white lab coat.

But the story of trying to shut down this board doesn't start in 1996; you have to go back much further. Smithsonian Magazine informs us that the Nixon administration first tried shutting down this advisory board in the 1970s: "This peculiar office was perceived as an example of wasteful Big Government as far back as the Nixon administration ... Their argument: Teamakers should self-regulate. Its total annual cost: $253,500, or about $400,000 in today's money."

Congress Finally Steps In

Nixon wasn't successful in shutting down this board. We wouldn't get that until Congress passed the "Federal Tea Tasters Repeal Act of 1996." But we were not done in 1996. That brings us to the current day. On September 12, 2023, the Federal Register announced:

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA or the Agency) is announcing the termination of the Board of Tea Experts by the Federal Tea Tasters Repeal Act of 1996. This document removes the Board of Tea Experts from the Agency's list of standing advisory committees.

And so a saga that began in the Nixon administration comes to a final close. It took more than fifty years to do it, but the federal government finally shut down an agency that few people had heard of or even knew existed.

Mind you, this is over a tiny government agency that politicians since Nixon used as an example of government waste. This kind of story should cause everyone to look at the remaining edifices of the federal government with some level of trepidation. If it took more than 50 years to get rid of the professional tea tasters, how much longer would it take to get rid of or even reform one of the big alphabet agencies?

The Tea Board's Legacy is the Same as Any Agency

Ronald Reagan said, "As government expands, liberty contracts." The spread of these agencies, advisory boards, and more have done more to curtail liberty in the United States than nearly any other force. Even something as small as a panel of "Tea Experts" prevents Americans from choosing a product they may like or not.

This is not some diatribe against the government, in general. But it is to point out that the government is doing things it shouldn't beMilton Friedman put it this way: "None of this means that government does not have a very real function. Indeed, the tragedy is that because government is doing so many things it ought not to be doing, it performs the functions it ought to be performing badly. The basic functions of government are to defend the nation against foreign enemies, to prevent coercion of some individuals by others within the country, to provide a means of deciding on our rules, and to adjudicate disputes."

The Steep Price of Government Excesses

The final end of The Board of Tea Experts is a reminder that the federal government is deeply involved in many tasks it shouldn't be, which removes resources from functions it should be doing. The result of that expansion into realms the government shouldn't be in results in less liberty and freedom for the everyday person. 

If it takes more than fifty years to get rid of The Board of Tea Experts, we will need a much more concerted effort to eliminate something like the Education Department or anything else. Republicans are fond of listing what they want to get rid of, which is fine. But the effort to get that task done takes time and considerable effort. 

Hopefully, the final removal of The Board of Tea Experts is the first of many such events. It'd be nice to see liberty expand for a generation instead of retract.

" A free people [claim] their rights, as derived from the laws of nature."
Thomas Jefferson
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