Thursday, May 31, 2007

Sacred, er, Cow 

For some as-yet-unascertained reason, libertarians flock to Yr. Mst. Bnvlnt. Dspt. as flies to beagle shit (and thank you, yes, we are only too aware that the simile is not a flattering one). As a result we are frequently subjected to ringing endorsements of that fictional institution commonly known as the "free market" -- a phantasm for which we have never been able to work up overmuch enthusiasm, despite our having read large portions of Thomas Frank's fine elucidative text One Market Under God, and having comprehended slightly less large portions of same. We have on one or two occasions sensed the presence of an Invisible Hand, but in both cases we were in a subway station, and the Hand, not unlike Richard Widmark's in Pickup on South Street, was rummaging about in our back pocket -- as is, we are reliably told, its wont.

Anyway, as we understand free-market theory, government is bad, and therefore all government regulation is bad. If, for example, a business engages in practices that have the unfortunate effect of killing customers, then other customers will punish that business by denying it their trade, thereby diminishing its revenues and driving it into bankruptcy: a condign resolution, and one devoutly to be wished. But what if certain business practices require . . . oh, let's say a decade or two, the rough incubation period of, to name one example, Bovine Spongiform Encephaly, to start killing consumers? What then?
The Bush administration said Tuesday it will fight to keep meatpackers from testing all their animals for mad cow disease.

The Agriculture Department tests fewer than 1 percent of slaughtered cows for the disease, which can be fatal to humans who eat tainted beef. A beef producer in the western state of Kansas, Creekstone Farms Premium Beef, wants to test all of its cows.

Larger meat companies feared that move because, if Creekstone should test its meat and advertised it as safe, they might have to perform the expensive tests on their larger herds as well.

The Agriculture Department regulates the test and argued that widespread testing could lead to a false positive that would harm the meat industry.
Outstanding! we thought (for when we read the article we were in a mode of conceptual solidarity with our libertarian friends). The meatpackers do as they wish, and if, some decades down the line, their cost-cutting measures result in the deaths of tens, hundreds, thousands, perhaps even millions of meat-eaters, then the infallible Market will exact a just retribution: there will be a hell of a lot fewer people alive to buy tainted meat, and profits will undoubtedly suffer.

But then novice blogger Rick Perlstein, distinguished author of Before the Storm, the single greatest book on the origins of the modern conservative movement, pointed out a couple of details that Yr. Mst. Hmbl. Mnrch., in his free-market/tainted-meat euphoria, had overlooked:
First, observe the contempt for liberty. When E. coli conservatives say self-regulation is preferable to government, they're even lying about that. Second, observe the contempt for small business. When a small company wants to - voluntarily! - hold its product to a higher standard, the government blocks it, in part because bigger companies have to be protected from the competition, in part because a theoretical threat to the bottom line (false positives) trumps protection against a deadly disease.

There's your conservatism, America: not extremism in defense of liberty. State socialism in defense of Mad Cow.
Holy, er, cow. So the government has to regulate a small business in order to prevent it from selling a product which might, if offered on the free market, cut into the profits of larger companies that are hoping, at all costs, to avoid the headaches and the additional expense of government regulation? It's a paradox. It does not compute. Our CPU is overheating and our head is about to essplode. Someone help us!!

UPDATE: Thank goodness! Our erudite colleague Michael Bérubé has ridden to the rescue with a definitive pimp-slapping of Mr. Perlstein's anti-free-market maunderings (or are they pro-free-market maunderings? We're still working it out), delivered from the perspective of an E. coli bacterium.

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