Milking the System

Last week I was invited by internet to sign a petition asking the British prime minister, Mrs. May, not to snatch free milk from the mouths of British children under the age of 5. The full machinery of outraged sentimentality is being geared into operation.

What here does the word “snatch” mean? In everyday parlance, we think of a robber snatching the purse of a passing woman, or perhaps of a child trying to take hold of a slice of cake when he has been told to wait his turn. Needless to say, the word is not employed in this sense here. What it means in this context is the withdrawal of a privilege granted more or less arbitrarily by a government that thinks itself entitled both to give and to withhold.

Amazon.com $25 Gift Ca... Buy New $25.00 (as of 11:45 EDT - Details) The use of the word “free” is also of interest. No tangible good in a monetary economy can be free to everyone. Only hail and volcanic ash are free; someone has to pay for everything else. The milk may be free to the 5-year-olds, and even to the mothers of the 5-year-olds, but it is not free tout court. In this case, the taxpayer has to pay for it, admittedly only a minuscule proportion of what is extracted—snatched—from him under threat of prosecution, but it is not free to him nonetheless. If I were dictator of the world, which fortunately I am not, I would outlaw the use of the word “free” in the sense of “free milk” on penalty of hard labor for life.

But let us now turn to more substantive matters. Why should children under the age of 5 in a country like Britain be in receipt of free milk, mostly through the intermediary of their mothers? Milk, after all, is one of the cheapest of commodities, so cheap that its producers are constantly complaining of its price, and the problem seems to be that of overproduction rather than of scarcity. At any rate, you could easily drown a fair-size infant in the quantity of milk you can buy for the price of a packet of cigarettes, to make only one comparison of prices.

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