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Laissez-faire and the meat-packing industry

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Eurynomus
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Okay, as the title describes, my question is in regards to the laissez-faire system and the meat-packing industry. I'm sure this question has been asked a bunch of times, but I am interested in the answer, so I will ask it once more. In my experience, the most common objection given by teachers to a completely laissez-faire capitalist system is an instance like the meat-packing industry, as illustrated in stories such as The Jungle.

I know [or at least, I think] that ideally, if something unsafe were happening in the production of meat in a totally free economy, people would stop buying that meat, thus it would be in the company's best interests to ensure safe conditions for their product. Does the government actually have any business in intervention here?

The historical example shows that meat can in fact be processed in a totally unsafe manner without people being any the wiser. How would a laissez-faire system deal with this? It seems people would only feel safe about eating the meat if they KNEW the government was keeping an eye on the production.

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Does the government actually have any business in intervention here?
The closest you could come to the government having a business in business is to prevent fraud, so if a meat-packers sells horsemeat as prime rib, they are engaging in fraud. (Some comment about the stupidity of people who can't distinguish horsemeat from prime rib on sight could be appropriate). It is the business of the government to prohibit fraud. Other than that, it is the obligation of the consumer to determine the facts that are relevant to him, as best he can, and act accordingly. If the meat is simply labeled as "meat", it is his obligation to determine what animal and what body part it is, if he cares (and if the seller will tell him). If the seller says "All you need to know is that it's meat", then I'd suggest buying a different brand of meat.
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The historical example shows that meat can in fact be processed in a totally unsafe manner without people being any the wiser...

And where did the thousands of meat-packing employees in 1900 buy their meat?

Let me guess...they were all vegans. That's right. It was a great conspiracy. The meat-packers didn't tell anyone except their ten-thousand closest friends and relatives about how bad the conditions were. It was all very hush-hush. And no one ever thought to ask why every meat-packing employee was a vegan.

Those poor proletariat! They just can't see past their noses. ;-)

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The problem with the food and drug industry in the 1900s was not simply the lack of regulation (although that certainly was one problem) there was also far less actual scientificand factual information about the subject. Added to this was the general ignorance of the public which meant that there was actually a demand for food and medicines which were not safe.

The best modern analogy is with the vitamin and "supplement" market. You would think that with all we know about science and medicine there would not be a demand for these things, but instead it is a thriving industry. People spend money on and injest wierd substances with little or no scientific or medical basis for their effectiveness or even safety.

This is why all attempts to curb dangerous products of any kind has to first be based on the populace having a certain level of knowledge and demanding certain standards of care. This is true of regulation, the tort system, and the market/advertising.

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This is why all attempts to curb dangerous products of any kind has to first be based on the populace having a certain level of knowledge and demanding certain standards of care.
Not sure what you mean. Are you point out a current non-ideal condition that justifies some regulation (e.g. many governmental attempts to curb dangerous products are based on an assumption that the populace aren't capable of doing so on their own); or, are you speaking of non-governmental attempts at curbing dangerous product?
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Not sure what you mean. Are you point out a current non-ideal condition that justifies some regulation (e.g. many governmental attempts to curb dangerous products are based on an assumption that the populace aren't capable of doing so on their own); or, are you speaking of non-governmental attempts at curbing dangerous product?

I am saying that the whole question of regulation, torts, market sanctions, etc is essentially moot when the populace doesn't have an interest or demand for higher standards.

This is why I think the essential goal should be education, not regulation.

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Why in the world would education of the masses be a goal??

Because a rational populace is a prerequisite for having a civilized country. Education, for instance, is a large part of the purpose of ARI. Everybody has an interest in their neighbors being more reasonable, more scientificly-knowledgable and more discriminating.

If a country's populace doesn't have these qualities, you end up like sub-Saharan Africa with their AIDS epidemic.

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This is why all attempts to curb dangerous products of any kind has to first be based on the populace having a certain level of knowledge and demanding certain standards of care. This is true of regulation, the tort system, and the market/advertising.

I think Berkov is just saying that if the public doesn't value safe foods, neither the market not the government will change things. It's a common fallacy to assume that governments are magically aware of hidden dangers and are able to act on risks that the markets are not privy to.

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I think Berkov is just saying that if the public doesn't value safe foods, neither the market not the government will change things. It's a common fallacy to assume that governments are magically aware of hidden dangers and are able to act on risks that the markets are not privy to.

Well, let's let him confirm for himself.

If the public doesn't "value safe foods" (which is a highly spurious statement anyway), why should there be an external effort to make them do so?

Because a rational populace is a prerequisite for having a civilized country. Education, for instance, is a large part of the purpose of ARI. Everybody has an interest in their neighbors being more reasonable, more scientificly-knowledgable and more discriminating.

If a country's populace doesn't have these qualities, you end up like sub-Saharan Africa with their AIDS epidemic.

hmm, providing a populace with facts about food safety doesn't make them rational. In fact, education of the type you're advocating here, presupposes that they are rational.

Edited by KendallJ
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Because a rational populace is a prerequisite for having a civilized country.
Then you don't really think that education is a goal, it's a means of reaching something that is your goal. Or do you still think that mass education should be everyone's goal? And at that, it is only a minor aspect of that means.
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Well, let's let him confirm for himself.

His summary was roughly what I was getting at.

If the public doesn't "value safe foods" (which is a highly spurious statement anyway), why should there be an external effort to make them do so?
For the same reason that medical education should be encouraged when the public is ignorant about how to prevent the spread of disease.

hmm, providing a populace with facts about food safety doesn't make them rational. In fact, education of the type you're advocating here, presupposes that they are rational.

I never said provide facts. I am talking about a general educational trend towards more a more scientific view of food and drugs.

Then you don't really think that education is a goal, it's a means of reaching something that is your goal. Or do you still think that mass education should be everyone's goal? And at that, it is only a minor aspect of that means.

I think this is a flawed question. Most "goals" are merely preludes to further goals. For instance, I have a goal to finish lawschool, but lawschool is just a means to the further goals of being a lawyer, getting a job, etc.

Education should be encouraged by ANYONE who values living in a rational society. If you think education is unimportant, you are essentially saying that reason, science, technology, etc are unimportant.

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For the same reason that medical education should be encouraged when the public is ignorant about how to prevent the spread of disease.

But these are two completely different effects. There is a "herd effect" with infectious disease. It is in my interest to help keep my neighbor healthy from infectiouls disease because it improves my chances of staying healthy.

There is no such self interest effect with food safety. I could care less if you are informed enough about food safety to make a better decision about it. Same with nutritional supplements. So why should I do it again?

I think the claim that the public is ignorant about decisions affecting their safety is spurious. If they were, why aren't they dying in droves. Nutritional supplements may not effect any health benefits, but they rarely hurt you either. If they did to any significant extent, you can bet it'd be publicized already. Every day I see all sorts of news, about all sorts of produts that grossly overexagerates the increased risk to my health, so why wouldn't something that actually hurt me not be publicized also. So why should anyone need to be educated additionally on the topic?

I never said provide facts. I am talking about a general educational trend towards more a more scientific view of food and drugs.

What specific actions is "a general education trend" a euphemism for?

Edited by KendallJ
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Wow! The issue being addressed by this thread has really morphed. I'm sure everyone here would agree that it is in one's selfish interest to live in a society surrounded by other people are bright, energetic, rational, well-educated, healthy, productive, proud and so on. I think the questions about goals arose because it sounded like a prescription for public-policy/government-action. If all it means is that people benefit from others being rational and actions like donations to ARI or to a good college can be in one's rational interest, then I guess no one here would object.

Back on the topic of meat and other products... the availability of "good" products does depend on the demand for "good" products, which -- in turn -- depends on what consumers think of as "good". Fortunately, the majority do not have to agree with you. Producers are willing to serve even rather small niches.

Nevertheless, here too a potential consumer can benefit from having like-minded neighbours. For most products that do not have value from their uniqueness and are not in short supply, consumers do benefit if there is heavy demand for them. If enough of my neighbors -- but not all -- think Starbucks coffee is worth $3 a cup, I might get a Starbucks in my neighborhood. So, I guess the moral of the story is: sell your values to your neighbors by "word of mouth"!

When it comes to clean food, safe cars, well-tested medicines, I think there are more than enough people who want the rational thing. All that producers need to do is to make the features and benefits of their products known. Consumers (often via commentators they trust) will look at that information and make a decision.

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But these are two completely different effects. There is a "herd effect" with infectious disease. It is in my interest to help keep my neighbor healthy from infectiouls disease because it improves my chances of staying healthy.

My example isn't limited to disease, it is applicable to any issue in which there is large-scale ignorance which affects the quality of life or productivity of the community.

There is no such self interest effect with food safety. I could care less if you are informed enough about food safety to make a better decision about it. Same with nutritional supplements. So why should I do it again?
Who said anything about self-interest?

I think the claim that the public is ignorant about decisions affecting their safety is spurious. If they were, why aren't they dying in droves. Nutritional supplements may not effect any health benefits, but they rarely hurt you either. If they did to any significant extent, you can bet it'd be publicized already. Every day I see all sorts of news, about all sorts of produts that grossly overexagerates the increased risk to my health, so why wouldn't something that actually hurt me not be publicized also. So why should anyone need to be educated additionally on the topic?

The risk of supplements, for instance is not limited to their chemical effect on the human body. Lots of money effort is wasted on them, money which could be used in more productive or useful pursuits. Also, in many cases people will use supplements thinking they are getting a benefit. Often people (especially the poor and uneducated) use supplements, herbal cures, faith healing, etc as an alternative to real medicine. That is a substantial threat to their health.

I am not saying that these phony medicines need to be banned or that warning labels should be enforced. My only point is that proper education will eventually reduce their use and harmful effects. Consumer watchdog groups are already doing a lot on this front, like Consumer Reports.

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My example isn't limited to disease, it is applicable to any issue in which there is large-scale ignorance which affects the quality of life or productivity of the community.

Who said anything about self-interest?

Exactly.

The community, as such, does not have a quality of life nor does it have a productivity. The use of the general "we" is what I'm trying to understand. The individuals within the community have a quality of life. Your advocacy of education has so far been general, but since education takes resources, I am interested in your thoughts as to who is to do the educating and who is to provide the resources, for whose benefit?

The risk of supplements, for instance is not limited to their chemical effect on the human body. Lots of money effort is wasted on them, money which could be used in more productive or useful pursuits. Also, in many cases people will use supplements thinking they are getting a benefit. Often people (especially the poor and uneducated) use supplements, herbal cures, faith healing, etc as an alternative to real medicine. That is a substantial threat to their health.

But not to mine. Should I care or be asked to do anything about their ignorance then?

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Exactly.

The community, as such, does not have a quality of life nor does it have a productivity. The use of the general "we" is what I'm trying to understand. The individuals within the community have a quality of life. Your advocacy of education has so far been general, but since education takes resources, I am interested in your thoughts as to who is to do the educating and who is to provide the resources, for whose benefit?

But not to mine. Should I care or be asked to do anything about their ignorance then?

It is only not a risk to you to the extent that effective alternatives are available and you know enough about the difference to be able to make informed choices. Basically in order for it not to be a risk to you, you must have a certain threshold amount of education and information.

I am not interested in getting into some Randian debate over the semantics of the words "community" or "public." My point concerns real-world issues pertaining to the level and sophistication of food and drugs in a given nation. And my point is simply that without education, safe food and drugs will simply not be available on a consistant basis. I am not talking about NEA grants, federal highway fund withholding, warning labels, product bans on anything of the kind.

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And my point is simply that without education, safe food and drugs will simply not be available on a consistant basis.

OK, I'll back off. This statement in general is true. I would say without knowledge, or self-education, because that clarifies to me where the moral responsiblity lies. Education in general is a service, and I just want to make sure you don't mean that someone has a right to such product or service.

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I am not interested in getting into some Randian debate over the semantics of the words "community" or "public." My point concerns real-world issues pertaining to the level and sophistication of food and drugs in a given nation. And my point is simply that without education, safe food and drugs will simply not be available on a consistant basis.

I disagree. I think that all the "education" the average consumer of sophisticated drugs needs to know is if they achieve their stated goals. If someone with frequent headaches reads that 90% of people who took Tylenol got relief from their headaches, he needn't have the same level of understanding as a neurologist or a pharmacist to safely, reliably benefit. Repeated successful performance over a long period of time inspires enough confidence in me that I feel comfortable doing other things with my time. I guess I'm just not as paranoid about fraud and incompetence as you are.

- Grant

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I disagree. I think that all the "education" the average consumer of sophisticated drugs needs to know is if they achieve their stated goals. If someone with frequent headaches reads that 90% of people who took Tylenol got relief from their headaches, he needn't have the same level of understanding as a neurologist or a pharmacist to safely, reliably benefit. Repeated successful performance over a long period of time inspires enough confidence in me that I feel comfortable doing other things with my time. I guess I'm just not as paranoid about fraud and incompetence as you are.

- Grant

Where does he read this "90%" figure? Is it in a late-night infomercial? A published double-blind clinical study from John Hopkins? Why did he pick Tylenol over say, a traditional Chinese herbal remedy? And how does he know it works via repeated performance. The placebo effect is powerful enough to inspire the confidence of many in even the most absurd pseudo-drugs.

My point is just that people aren't magically gifted with the education and discrimination required to choose products in a market (like food and drugs) in which direct contact with the product tells little or nothing about its safety or efficacy. The only way the populace can safely interact in these markets is once they a.) understand the difference between safe and unsafe, and b.) thus demand safe products and shun unsafe ones.

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