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!