Capitalism, Regulation and Animal Welfare

If you believe Republicans in this country you’d think the answer to all our economic woes is “free market economics unhindered by government regulation” — I’d say you’re wrong.

Sure, this is a political statement. But I’m not trying to argue from a standpoint of my politics are better than your politics. Rather, I’m using a political issue to highlight one of the fundamental driving forces behind factory farming. Peter Singer highlights this in his book The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter:

“The core issue is the commercial pressures that exist in a competitive market system in which animals are items of property, and the conditions in which they are kept are not regulated by federal or state animal welfare law.” 

It’s not hard to see that the factory farming system is the result of unfettered free market capitalism.  Free market “competition” will drive the price of meat and animal products down over time. While that might sound like a good thing…consider the following. Driving the price of meat and animal products down over time is not the only goal; the additional goal is to enrich the shareholders and executives at the company. The way the price of meat goes down while still skimming enough off the top to appease shareholders and CEOs/VPs is lower wages, less worker benefits, poor working conditions, less worker rights, intensive animal confinement practices and whatever practice will be cheaper. 

This brings me to the next point, which Singer articulates very well:

“The real ethical issue about factory farming’s treatment of animals isn’t whether the producers are good or bad guys, but that the system seems to recognize animal suffering only when it interferes with profitability.” 

The “profit motive” is a very blinding concept that drives corporations to ignore animal welfare in the pursuit of better quarterly earnings reports.  That’s the trouble with capitalism. Capitalism in its most raw form is a dangerous animal. To borrow a phrase from one of my Radiology professors, “It’s a dog eat dog world out there and I’m wearing milk bone underpants.” And it is a dog eat dog world in capitalism. Sometimes it’s not pretty, e.g. 2008’s Great Recession. If you find yourself wearing the milk bone underpants capitalism might eat you alive. Luckily we have some regular cotton underpants…I call that regulation. And until I or someone smarter than me figures out a Utopian economy that can sidestep capitalism then we’ll have to settle on regulation as a safety net for the failings of capitalism.

I’d also like to say that I agree with Singer that most producers (i.e. the farmers) aren’t the “bad guys.” However, I don’t want you to forget that there are bad guys in the tale of factory farming. I’ll let you guess who that might be…

One of my top priorities when envisioning the future of animal agriculture is government regulated animal welfare laws. And I’m talking about tough laws. Laws that any decent human being would find necessary and prudent, but corporate food companies like Tyson and Cargill would find objectionable. If companies like Tyson and Cargill aren’t complaining about the new laws, you know they aren’t tough enough. If they are complaining…you’re on the right track!

Assignment: Nada…take the night off!


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