A Libertarian Argument for Reducing Meat and Dairy Consumption

I would like to start this short essay by stating that I am neither vegetarian nor vegan. Personally, I think that libertarianism can contribute to the discussion about the adverse effects of meat-eating and dairy consumption in a substantial manner. This short text isn’t meant to be a pamphlet of an ideology that is usually attributed to the left side of the political spectrum but it is supposed to stand on its own merits.

Most people have made arguments in favor of vegetarianism and veganism because of the enormous violence committed against farmed and laboratory animals. I reckon that most people, with the exception of pathological persons, would agree that hurting and killing a living being, even if it’s an animal, is an ethically undesirable activity. Does it therefore make sense ethically to abstain from doing it as much as possible?

There exists a consensus with respect to humans, or «human animals». Unlike «non-human animals», it is said that we are self-conscious beings. Therefore, upholding the «non-aggression-principle» (NAP) is the dominant strategy.

In the same vein, the NAP is the main theorem of libertarianism. Libertarians explicitly or implicitly accept it by condemning theft, physical assault, rape, and most government programs (because they are deemed theft, or robbery). In other words, we strictly oppose any form of coercion and violence in the world of conscious beings (unborn babies would be a separate, highly controversial topic!).

«[…] we strictly oppose any form of coercion and violence in the world of conscious beings […].»

What changes when it comes to animal farming and experimenting though? The great libertarian Philosopher Murray N. Rothbard argued that only «[…] man is a rational and social animal. No other animals or beings possess this ability to reason, to make conscious choices, to transform their environment in order to prosper, or to collaborate consciously in society and the division of labor.» I don’t intend to refute Rothbard’s argument here, although there has been new research questioning the commonly supported notion of animals lacking consciousness.

I would like to take a different path that is not based on environmental grounds, «Rothbardian» natural law, or animal ethics as such. Instead, I’m advocating a notion of animal welfare according to which contempt for animal life has real implications for our own ethical considerations.

Prima facie, this might seem like a simplistic and dull stance to the reader. However, when we start thinking about it, in particular about large-scale animal farming, can we really claim that there exists a consensus among people? Does our deliberate attitude to look away when it comes to animal suffering reflect an ethical statement about our society at large? If so, what does it say about our ethos? And is it not in particular the libertarian community who takes issue with present-day governments being not only thievish but spoiling what is left of morality?

Please allow me to hypothesize the following: Hurting animals challenges our own ethos. Therefore, every time we mistreat animals, we negotiate with our humanness. It might not surprise then that recent marketing efforts of the meat industry use the term «humane». Understandably, we want to act humanely in all our undertakings. But, at the end of the day, the consumption of meat and dairy is an effortless activity. It doesn’t cost us an arm or a leg economically. This is true because we don’t have to deal with the actual raising, slaughtering, and handling of livestock. It’s convenient to buy packaged meat at the meat counter in the nearby grocery store.

But there is, in my opinion, an «ethical cost» associated with today’s meat industry. Ignoring animal welfare reflects poor ethical values on our part, and keep doing so consolidates them eventually.

«Hurting animals challenges our own ethos.»

There are more than enough examples of moral degeneration historically. And sadly, they didn’t stop at barn doors:

When the British journalist and novelist George Orwell wrote his world-famous book «Animal Farm» (1945), allegorizing the lives and brutalities under Stalinist rule, he depicted the proletariat as a community consisting of farm animals. The pigs (Stalin) rising to power over the farm become more and more like the farmer who owns them (the capitalist). This is, of course, a little bit ironic given that Socialism, and Nazism alike, are epitomes of ethical contempt for human life, with death tolls amounting to 17 million under Hitler Germany (about 6 million Jews) and 94 million under Communist regimes globally (and to this day in North Korea). And tellingly, those victims were held captive in concentration and extermination camps, or gulags, kept as if they were animals.

In my opinion, there exists a close relationship between those totalitarian regimes, the atrocities they committed against humanity, and the value decline in European societies at the time. In fact, our behavior is ultimately a mirror of our thoughts, values, and our attitude towards our fellow human beings, animals, and the environment in general.

Therefore, today’s moral degeneration is, inter alia, reflected in how we treat farm animals.

From a libertarian perspective, you can make a good case for reducing consumption of something that is highly artificially subsidized by governments around the world. However, it’s even a better argument for reducing meat and dairy consumption if it happens for reasons that have long-lasting positive effects on our own ethical standards. I feel confident that once we treat «non-human animals» better, we will also adopt a more ethical attitude towards our fellow human beings.

I’m aware that this is a cultural issue for most people. I wouldn’t force anyone to change their behavior. But at least, we should give it a thought!

The Right to Be Let Alone in a World of Cultural Diversity

The right to be let alone, as Justice Louis Brandeis famously put it in “Olmstead v. United States”, is commonly associated with the right to privacy in the Fourth Amendment. The constitutional “[…] right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures […]” critically separates the spheres of life and wards off many dangers from the government. However, in a society so culturally diverse as ours, the right to be let alone takes on much greater significance than just separating the spheres between the individual and the state.

Bridges are not built overnight

A recent poll shows that Americans are divided on the role of culture in their society. Coming from Europe, the U.S. is undoubtedly a much more culturally diverse nation than most European countries, if not all. Unlike Switzerland, for example, Americans cannot rely on ethnic kinship for a shared identity. The U.S. is truly a nation of immigrants. The more surprising are the results of that poll showing that conservative and social-democratic opinions diverge in terms of fundamental cultural values.

If we accept the fact that culture matters, we also have to concede that foreign culture should have a place in our society.

Culture is a delicate issue. F.A. Hayek argued that culture matters and that it shouldn’t be denied in the political processes of a constitutional democracy, unless one wants to question the stability of a society. However, culture isn’t a rigid phenomenon either. The basic values of a society can change, and quite obviously, have done so significantly. Slavery, for example, once a shared value among many Americans and Europeans, was abolished in a justified fight against unjust values.

If we accept the fact that culture matters, we also have to concede that foreign culture should have a place in our society. This doesn’t mean, though, that people native to a country have to give up on their own values. Quite naturally, the burden of responsibility must rest on those who immigrate to a foreign culture. However, we shouldn’t expect that everyone is willing to assimilate entirely. And this is where the crux begins.

The “great society”, not government is the solution

Many bureaucrats think that seamless integration is simply a question of the right laws and forceful state mediation between two cultures. They assume that by designing sophisticated programs immigrants will necessarily start feeling as members of society. This is wrong, though. Hayek made clear that culture doesn’t work that way:

“[…] the extended order resulted not from human design or intention but spontaneously: it arose from unintentionally conforming to certain traditional and largely moral practices, many of which men tend to dislike, whose significance they usually fail to understand, whose validity they cannot prove, and which have nonetheless fairly rapidly spread by means of an evolutionary selection – the comparative increase of population and wealth – of those groups that happened to follow them.”

(F. A. Hayek, in: W. W. Bartley, III (ed.), The Fatal Conceit, Vol. 1 of The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek, Chicago 1988, 6)

To put it in a nutshell, culture is omnipresent, it possesses a formative role in life like no other informal social institution. Cultural values are deeply embedded in social relations, parenting, education, and so forth, which is why we should never expect perfect assimilation from top-down integration programs, as sophisticated as they may be.

However, the market, unlike any other institution, has the power to create peaceful cooperation among people of different cultures. It creates opportunities for those who are willing to integrate and to accept the traditions of the local population. Even more importantly, the market discourages people from thinking in entitlements. The culture of dependency, created by the welfare state, has not only made millions of individuals depending but has also evoked antipathy for foreigners and their diverse values with which they arrive at our borders. As Donald Trump’s presidential campaign platform impressively showed, once the state has created the feeling of being left behind, politics quickly becomes an outlet for racial slurs and cultural defamation.

A government siding with one group of its population is highly problematic. In doing so, it does not only sow a lot of mistrust and resentment among those people with conflicting opinions but also conveys the belief that government is able to solve the problem, if necessary using force.

What remains for us to do then?

What then are the ideal conditions for the peaceful coexistence of people of a different cultural background? The German classical liberal economist and philosopher, Roland Baader, once said that there exists only one human right, the right to be let alone (“Das einzig wahre Menschenrecht ist das Recht, in Ruhe gelassen zu werden […]”). This is in fact how every human tribe started off before becoming part of a more involved society. Well, some groups, like the Amish people in the U.S. and Canada, believe in the fulfilled existence of remaining unaffected by unfamiliar values till this day.

Oftentimes, however, foregoing the opportunities of cooperation will cost those people dear. In his book “Living Economics”, Peter Boettke shows that there exist myriad institutions that allow people to engage actively with each other, while living peacefully side by side. It is these “organic” institutions of self-governance that have proven themselves valuable throughout the world and that have supported people in coming together and starting exchanging not only goods but eventually ideas and their cultural heritage.

However, to concede that culture matters, that of immigrants as much as ours, is the first step to recognize that peaceful community relies on everyone’s right to be let alone if he or she wishes to do so.

In a very biological sense, the right to be let alone gives us the time needed to prepare ourselves for the world outside of our “cultural backyard”. It is true that we will always have to accept that some people are not willing to become part of a more heterogenous society. As I said, this is their very right. And sometimes, we’ll even have to defend the principles of an open society against violent aggressors. However, to concede that culture matters, that of immigrants as much as ours, is the first step to recognize that peaceful community relies on everyone’s right to be let alone if he or she wishes to do so.

Published by The Libertarian Institute