Knowledge Through Ignorance

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Picture me as I sit each night after work — dressed in my silk smoking jacket and ascot, reading The Principles of Economics or some other such work, perched on my sofa, with a cup of wine sitting neatly on my coffee table. A warm fire blazes in the fireplace, and I would describe my situation as the epitome of luxury and leisure.

Picture, now, that you come flying into my home, douse the fire, rip my book to shreds, and destroy my fine clothing. I have to admit, I’d be quite taken aback by this event, and certainly I would not be pleased with the turn that events have taken. I have to imagine that I’d be quite upset with you. As a side note, you might find yourself not entirely pleased with how events would go from there, since on my mantel I have two swords, and my martial arts training included the use of swords. Suffice it to say, though, that I’d be quite surprised, and displeased, with the entire situation.

Imagine my further surprise, though, if while doing this, you were to state "I’m doing this for the sake of your comfort, and to improve your luxury." Now I’d be more than upset — I’d also be extremely puzzled. This claim would be simply unaccountable to me, and I would have no way to explain how you could make it. I don’t like to be confused, or to be presented with inexplicable riddles, and so I’d naturally not be happy about this turn of events either.

Luckily, this hasn’t happened to me. However, the state of Pennsylvania has engaged in a very similar action against its citizens. That state has banned the use of voluntary labeling on milk and dairy products which advertise the fact that the milk inside comes from cows not treated with rBGH or rBST. Milk may now not be labeled, for sale in Pennsylvania, with anything indicating whether or not these chemicals were used on the cows that provided the milk. I happen to be somewhat concerned about the presence of these chemicals, and many years ago, when I drank store-bought milk, I’d preferentially buy milk from untreated cows. Even if you think this is a silly concern, though, you should recognize that some people are concerned about it. Furthermore, those people create a market niche, which producers work to fill, by growing their cows organically and proudly displaying this fact on their milk. The producer might be just as unconcerned about rBGH as you are, but simply trying to capture this portion of the market. It is true, there is no government bureaucracy that checks on these labels, but private groups and organizations do. For this reason, I consider the labels far more trustworthy than government-backed labels. In any event, prices for labeled milk tend to be higher than prices for regular milk, and it is this profit incentive which led producers to develop organic farms. This activity began, by the way, 12 years ago, when the FDA began allowing voluntary labeling. Before that, the FDA did not allow such labeling, on the argument that no FDA rule allowed it, therefore it was forbidden. This is also a puzzling argument, as there is also no FDA rule allowing me to sit at my desk, but I suppose I shouldn’t point that out to the bureaucrats.

Now, the state of Pennsylvania has outlawed the labels. This is quite harmful to producers who built organic farms, which are much harder to build and maintain, on the expectation of being able to obtain a higher milk price. Now that the milk is not labeled, there will be no price differential, and soon enough there will be no untreated milk available for sale in the state, I’d wager.

Of course, the worst harm is done to the consumers who desire this untreated milk. They gladly paid extra for it in the past, but now find themselves protected from such treatment — and unable to obtain what they want for any price. This is a dreadful state of affairs for the birthplace of the Constitution.

Thus far, we have only established that Pennsylvania’s actions were wrong, and harmful. It gets worse, though. The stated reason for these regulations is perplexing — the legislature and the governor tell us that these regulations were passed because of the need for consumers to be well informed about the contents and conditions of their milk! This is quite similar to the man who destroys my smoking jacket and ascot out of a desire to ensure that I have easy access to luxuries and leisure.

So, we find ourselves, in addition to being disturbed and angry, also perplexed. This is not a desirable state of affairs. Then, a glimmer of hope appears — it seems an explanation is possible. So, while we will still be disturbed and angry, we will not be puzzled anymore. On the other hand, the explanation will likely make us far more angry.

Our explanation for this action can be found outside of the state of Pennsylvania. In fact, the explanation lies in a small region of the United States which happens to fall within no state at all for purposes of representation in Congress. That is, the District of Columbia, where so many bad ideas are born, where good ideas go to die, and where base men go to become far baser. In Washington, DC we find a sales pitch which agriculture giant Monsanto tried at the FDA, and which failed. Monsanto, through its significant lobby force, had asked the FDA to do precisely what the PDA did. Monsanto, which just happens to hold the patent on rBGH, argued to legislators and FDA bureaucrats that voluntary labeling on milk was "misleading" and should be banned. Of course, it is immediately evident that Monsanto stands to earn no profit from such a ban, and obviously Monsanto is only interested in the common good in promoting such legislation.

Now, having stated the obligatory utter lie, we ask a reasonable question — aren’t lobbying efforts more likely to work in Pennsylvania than in Washington, considering that Pennsylvania politicians, while just as base as federal politicians, are not generally quite as rich? Any gift to a politician or bureaucrat there is a larger proportion of their income and total wealth than a gift of the same size to a federal bureaucrat or politician. Federal politicians and bureaucrats have been around the system long enough that their future is more or less secure — they’ve done enough to help corporations destroy their competition, or to help them secure contracts, that they are fairly certain of getting a cushy job at a major corporation after their time in Washington is over. Pennsylvania politicians, on the other hand, are far less certain of their futures, and therefore must do more to secure their futures. So, after failing at the FDA (one does wonder, though, how this failure took place at all — does someone at the FDA object to arbitrary bans on package labels? Most likely they were just too lazy to make a new rule for it) Monsanto seems to have succeeded in Pennsylvania, and so will at least pick up some additional market there by putting organic farmers out of the Pennsylvania market.

So, we no longer need to be perplexed on this issue, but there remains one perplexing question. How can anyone see this and yet continue to believe that the government should be more involved in our lives? There are people who understand this type of regulatory capture, and yet propose to respond to it with larger and more powerful regulators. What this case illustrates is a larger point — that the creation of a body with the power to compel behavior to any degree will produce, in an amount proportionate to the power possessed, a field of lobbyists and others ready to pay for protection and for actions against corporate competitors. Since the body will be staffed by people, they will accept the payoffs. So, leaving aside the absolute immorality of creating such a body to begin with, it can be guaranteed that it will never produce the desired outcomes — in this case, the FDA was created with the hopes of improving health through promotion of healthful foods and drugs. Instead, we have less healthy food and drugs forced upon us, in accordance with corporate demands. So, even from the leftist perspective, the system can be seen to be in dire need of abolition.

Joshua Katz, NREMT-P [send him mail], is the newest member of the mathematics faculty at the Oxford Academy, Westbrook, Connecticut. He has studied philosophy of mind, logic, and epistemology of economics from an Austrian perspective, and is a former graduate student in philosophy at Texas A&M, as well as holding a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. He still holds the title of Chief of EMS for the Town of Hempstead Department of Parks and Recreation, and will return to full-time service there in the summer. He enjoys a glass of port and a wedge of Brie, but has discontinued this practice on a regular basis, due to the sugar content of the port.

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