2014 THIRD PLACE ESSAY

by Collin Lehmann, Age 15
Submitting Teacher: Michelle Lehmann


In 1906, Upton Sinclair's novel, The Jungle, shocked America. The gruesome descriptions of meat factories in the early twentieth century led officials at all levels of government to implement regulations on food production. At first, the focus was on food safety, but it has since transformed into the amorphous goal of keeping people healthy. These food regulations, though often well-intentioned, are a textbook example in government failure.

Although food regulations impose serious costs upon both consumers and producers, several a priori issues must be considered before these costs are even weighed. First is the issue of self-ownership. It is a common creed of libertarians that you have the right to decide what to do with your own body. This is the fundamental principle of self-ownership: you and you alone can have control of your person. Any regulation that directly prohibits consumption of a food product presumes that the government has a greater claim to your body than you do and runs afoul of the principle of self-ownership. On these grounds alone, such regulation should be rejected. After all, if full ownership of another person (slavery) is impermissible, why is partial ownership permissible?

In addition, food regulations have unpleasant implications, which, when taken into account, strengthen the case against them. To demonstrate, one might postulate a simple axiom: that physical force is only legitimate when used in a defensive manner, never aggressively. Unfortunately, food regulations fail to live up to this standard. Food regulation will, in most cases, be enforced by a fine. Behind all the patronizing semantics, the issue is clear as day: violators will be expropriated as punishment for peacefully exercising their right to self-ownership. It is not the violation, but the regulation itself that breaches our initial axiom. On this basis alone, we must take an a priori stance against food regulation.

But the case for a free market in foods does not end there. These regulations are also responsible for substantial harm to both producers and consumers of food products. In many cases, these outcomes are predictable and conform to basic principles of economics.

One such policy is the use of taxes to discourage consumption. In John Stossel's Food Nannies' segment, Stossel takes a critical look at Denmark's so-called Fat Tax. In essence, the Fat Tax imposes an additional tax upon food that is high in fat. Or rather, it used to. It was repealed less than a year after it's unveiling. Rather than eating healthy, Danes simply switched to less expensive, but equally unhealthy alternatives. Some even crossed borders to shop for their favorite products where there was no fat tax. Students in every basic economic class are taught that increasing the costs of a good will simply lead consumers to seek out similar substitutes, but politicians who continue to advocate measures like the fat tax have evidently not learned this lesson. These ill-advised policies, though widely hailed as being massive steps towards better health, are merely a duplicitous example of government posturing.

If only that were the only problem. Still worse is the racket that is organic certification. While it purports to be a valuable government function, helping consumers make informed decisions about their food purchases, the reality is somewhat more distasteful. As Peter van Doren, editor of Regulation magazine, argued in a Cato Institute podcast, these large farms can easily lobby, and indeed, play a pivotal role in the decisions regarding what is officially considered organic. With this power, they can lock out smaller competitors, forcing up the final consumer price. In addition, quality can suffer; for example, official USDA rules say that organic chickens must be fed with organic feed unless the cost of organic feed is twice that of standard feed, in which case standard fed chickens may be labeled organic. Contrast this to America's privately run kosher certification system, where firms have their products certified as kosher by private firms devoted specifically to this task. Timothy D. Lytton, professor of law at the Albany Law School, has argued that the benefits of this private certification include greater technical experience, better inspection and monitoring, more proactive regulation, more sensitivity to both businesses and consumers, and more efficiency in their task.

In light of these facts the case for government regulation becomes still weaker. These measures fail to achieve their stated purposes and often bring harm to the consumers. Rather than forcing the preferences of bureaucrats and politicians upon a complacent populace, the government ought to get out of food regulation and let the market work. The record is clear: the food police have failed. The government cannot and should not try to make us healthy. So why not give freedom a chance?