Are the Feds Persecuting Gibson Guitars?

The Department of Justice goes after Gibson Guitars.

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Virtually the only reason to keep up with University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds' Instapundit blog these days, with its monotonous drumbeat of "How's that hopey-changey stuff workin' out for ya" juvenility, is for the online bargain-shopping alerts.

But I confess Reynolds has piqued my interest lately with updates on the story surrounding recent Department of Justice raids into factories run by Nashville-based Gibson Guitar Corp. The company apparently is under suspicion of using "tainted" wood from overseas.

If you wanted to get me really angry about overweening feds, excessive regulation, and persecution of job creators, this would be the slab of red meat to dangle in my direction. (A general rule of thumb: If the subject of someone name "Beck" comes up, I hope for Jeff over Glenn.) [Read Peter Roff: Small Business Commits to Fighting Regulation]

Gibson guitars are an emblem of American craftsmanship at its finest. (I wrote about the fascinating history of Gibson's rivalry with Fender for The Washington Times in 2008). In particular, the type and blend of wood used to make guitars can have a subtle but significant impact on how they ultimately sound.

It turns out, though, that the story is depressingly complex.

The Wall Street Journal reports:

Gibson's predicament, which raises concerns for musical instrument makers and other importers of wood, illustrates the pitfalls of complying with U.S. law while dealing with middlemen in faraway countries whose legal systems can be murky.

The law ensnaring Gibson is the Lacey Act of 1900, originally passed to regulate trade in bird feathers used for hats and amended in 2008 to cover wood and other plant products. It requires companies to make detailed disclosures about wood imports and bars the purchase of goods exported in violation of a foreign country's laws.

Down I went into the rabbit role of the 1900 Lacey Act: the first federal law, enacted under Republican President William McKinley, to protect wildlife. The 2008 amendment of the law that the WSJ references was buried in a reauthorization of the infamous 2002 Farm Bill. [See the month’s best political cartoons.]

So we arrive at a familiarly boring juncture: One man's well-intentioned bureaucrat is another man's jackbooted thug.

It would seem to me that there's a market opportunity here. Companies like Gibson appear to have a need for consultants who've had experience in navigating through key countries' export policies. (The ebony and rosewood in question comes from Madagascar and India.)

In the meantime, I'm struck by the fact that the guitar that quintessential American country boy Johnny B. Goode could play just like he's ringing a bell is now a global patchwork.

I'm forced to echo the sardonic Glenn Reynolds: Is that the hope or the change?