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!

Why Liberals Should Be More Optimistic

Optimists think that the course of events will be positive, for them personally or for society in general. Realists, on the other hand, think that the course of events might turn out to be positive; they concede, however, that they can’t really know since reality consists of complex phenomena. Optimism and realism are sometimes used as contradictory concepts. That doesn’t necessarily follow though.

Liberal thinkers can often be described as optimists with a strong sense of reality. On the one hand, they hope that a particular situation will turn out well; they even provide policy recommendations in order to facilitate the process. On the other hand, liberal thinkers are skeptical of what men, in particular politicians and bureaucrats, are capable of achieving. They have a realistic perception about the nature of humans and their capabilities.

Liberal thinkers can often be described as optimists with a strong sense of reality.

Personally, I’ve always perceived liberalism as a philosophy advocating a realistic optimism. For instance, we can look back to the big controversy about socialist planning in the 1920s (the “socialist calculation debate“). Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich A. von Hayek and later Murray N. Rothbard argued that a planned economy must inevitably fail at some point because its planners lack the knowledge necessary to determine economic in- and outputs. Mises and Hayek were proven right with their predictions when the Soviet system collapsed economically and politically in the early 1990s. They were pessimistic about the Soviet economy, but both Mises and Hayek felt optimistic about their own policy proposals regarding the market economy.

Many people nowadays think that capitalism and the free enterprise system have failed, given widespread poverty, the waste of resources, corruption, and so on. However, contrary to common belief, figures show that the world has become a fundamentally better place (please click on the picture to increase its size):

Liberals (read libertarians) can (and should) be more optimistic given the continuing overall trend which constantly confirms that people have become healthier, live in freer societies, and are better educated than in the 19th century (let alone earlier periods of mankind).

At the same time, we have been warned that we should remain skeptical towards supposed panaceas and prophecies coming from the ones that think they will change the world single-handedly; the ones that feel confident that they possess the recipes to solve all the ills of mankind; and those claiming that their proposed solutions are without alternative. In his Nobel Prize lecture, Hayek invoked us not to be imprudent or foolish when it comes to people that pretend to know everything (“The Pretence of Knowledge”). His statement emphasizes that we should exercise restraint in our own dealings, but also remain extremely cautious about what politics can actually accomplish for the good of society.

To conclude this short essay, I’d like to quote Karl Popper. He was that kind of optimistic thinker with an insistent sense of reality:

“The future is open. It is not predetermined and thus cannot be predicted – except by accident. The possibilities that lie in the future are infinite. When I say ‘It is our duty to remain optimists’, this includes not only the openness of the future but also that which all of us contribute to it by everything we do: we are all responsible for what the future holds in store. Thus it is our duty, not to prophesy evil, but, rather, to fight for a better world.”

Karl Popper, The Myth of the Framework, 1994