Charles Krauthammer has noted, more than once, and I have quoted him, I also think more than once, that liberals don’t care what you do, so long as it is mandatory. This coercive spirit driving them applies to everything, and what once used to be used as a reductio ad absurdum in our debates with them (about tobacco or health care, say) are now embraced by progressives as a serious part of their agenda. Anything to grow the girth of the state. They want control of the food supply, and they want it to further their statist ends.
Like it or not, food is now a serious political issue. The Food Police by Jayson Lusk is a very fine book about the politics of food, and the politics of food — as it turns out — is quite an extensive subject. We’ll get to some of the details of that in a moment.
First, there are a number of distinctions we need to make before moving on to a closer interaction with the book. As those who have been following my posts on food should know, the need of the hour is for us to leave one another alone. What someone else has for lunch ought to make me purse my lips not at all, and a censorious gaze should be the last thing on my mind. We should all be allowed our laissez faire lunchtimes.
But this is precisely why we need to make a distinction between lunch and the politics of lunch. Lunch is what we order off the menu. Politics is what we order off the stage. Politics is about what we are willing, corporately, to require of one another. Politics has an element of coercion, always, and because of my adherence to the golden rule, I want to keep that coercion to a minimum. Coercion is always a big deal, and so I don’t want to make anybody do anything unless I have sound biblical warrant for it. This is why I am willing for the coercive power of the state to be applied to rapists and murderers, and not to the purveyors of raw milk, unregulated cheeses, and/or Big Gulp sodas. On the matter of foodstuffs I am a libertarian. Let the people buy, if they so desire, junk science or junk food.
To run ahead to the moment when the entree called the point of this blog post arrives at this table of ours, piping hot, I don’t have biblical warrant for making people eat what a bunch of other officious people might think might be healthy.
One other distinction needs to be made. The modern foodie movement is native to the Left, and is therefore just two steps away from making whatever it is compulsory. This is an important point to make, but it has to be made without falling into the genetic fallacy. The Kellogg brothers were wingnuts back in their day, but many a normal American kid has had his corn flakes without partaking of the wingnuttery. The same thing applies in the consumption of Graham crackers, the flour of which was originally thought to help us deal with original sin. More than that is involved, apparently.
So I am not talking about the suspect origins of something, long ago and far away. And neither am I talking about the libertarians and crunchy cons who eat alternative foods just because they like it. I know that many such exist, and may God bless every crunchy mouthful for them. You can buy Shaker furniture without swearing off sex. But it needs to be acknowledged that the overwhelming ethos of the contemporary foodie movement is statist in its assumptions. Orwell’s vision of the totalitarian future was a boot stepping on a human face forever. These soft despots want to do it with pillows, but they still want to do it.
Turning to Lusk’s book, he notes this important aspect of Michael Pollan’s entire project.
“Reading Pollan’s farm policy proposal, one is struck by the vision of an all-encompassing government that knows no bounds so long as its purpose is to provide us fashionable food. Lurking behind the compassion and glowing rhetoric is a deeper reality of food totalitarianism” (pp. 115-116).
Just one example of this — Pollan wants the government to “establish a strategic grain reserve” (p. 129), in order to control and moderate the price of grain.
“In his book The World is Fat, Barry Popkin says he wants to ‘change our eating pattern . . . through taxation’” (p. 146).
So before debating (or, rather, discussing) what foods are best for you, or which taste better, or which are less filling, what I would like to do is insist that all parties agree beforehand to keep coercion to a minimum. Just let people buy what they buy, and eat what they eat. No subsidies, no price supports, no restrictions, and no federal departments printing brochures about it. Let’s make a deal — no stupid laws. Let us have our discussion in the context of liberty. If you believe in free markets, as I do, this needs to include farmers’ markets.
This is keeping coercion to a minimum, which is not the same thing as anarchy. The state should legitimately hear civil suits brought in cases of salmonella and E. Coli. If the patron of a restaurant left this valley of tears while on the restaurant floor after drumming his heels on the floor for five minutes, clutching at his throat, making quite a scene, and scaring the couple in the booth next to the window, then a legal action should be able to be brought. But if we are debating whether an excess of moon pies shaved three and a half years off some guy’s life expectancy, I would urge us all to let his wife make the necessary and prudent moon pie calculations. Let’s not do that through the nearest circuit court, or make it the remotest concern of any cabinet level departments.
This is because we live in a time when food opinions are not just food opinions. They are being expressed against a backdrop of thinly veiled legal threats. As soon as a certain kind of mind decides that something is disreputable, then the next step is to say “there ought to be a law.”
“I write about the food police because they have been spectacularly effective in influencing how our culture thinks about food” (p. 181).
And moving from how we have come to think about food, to the next step, which is how we already unfortunately think about the law, we need to be really careful. But the leaders in the foodie movement are not shy about helping us not to be careful in this regard.
This is an important commitment for us to make because there are many issues where the fears seem — at least initially — far more reasonable. I used the example of the gent who had too many moon pies, but what about genetically modified foods, as in, the so-called “franken foods?” How many hundreds of thousands of acres should be under the control of “corporate farming”? Let’s consider these questions in turn:
My operating assumption is that we ought not to be banning anything without clear moral warrant, and fears about insect-resistant crops shouldn’t be in that category.
“The food police have fought tooth and nail to keep the current technologies out of [Africans'] hands . . . While rich farmers and consumers in the United States are enjoying the benefits of insect-resistant corn, these groups [Greenpeace, Food First, etc.] somehow find it morally justifiable to hinder Africans from developing and using drought-tolerant maize” (p. 111).
Not only can a plain moral case not be made against such crops, a quite compelling moral case can be made against those who would interfere with a serious attempt to feed a continent where starvation is not rare.
This leads to another point — corporate farms, family farms, and economies of scale. It is easy to disparage “corporate” farming, but . . .
“The food police can maintain their hypocrisy by demonizing ‘factory’ or ‘corporate’ farms. But the reality is that 97 percent of all farms in the United States are family farms” (p. 122).
“It is true that some family farms are quite big. These large-scale family farms represent only about 7.5 percent of all farms in the United States, but they produce most of the food, accounting for more than 60 percent of agricultural output” (p. 122).
Returning to my earlier point about coercion, I am happily prepared to acknowledge that the elimination of subsidies from the Department of Agriculture would change the picture drastically for a number of these farms, a result I would be quite prepared to cheer on. Some of these farms would get bigger, and some smaller. But all of them, and all of us, would get freer.
But suppose a true free market in agriculture. We still have the task of feeding the world, all seven billion of us, and boutique farming isn’t going to do it. This does not mean that I am against niche farming at all — I am not, and God bless them. I am simply saying the entire job at hand is much bigger than that.
“Pollan tells us that, in a year, the Virginia-based Polyface farm produces 30,000 dozen eggs, 12,000 broilers, 800 stewing hens, 25,000 pounds of beef, 50,000 pounds of pork, 800 turkeys, and 500 rabbits. Add it all up and it amounts to about 300,000 calories per acre. Impressive! Or is it? When an efficient large-scale farmer plants his field with corn, he yields over 15 million calories per acre” (p. 166).
If you look at the Polyface web site, they say this: “We are in the redemption business: healing the land, healing the food, healing the economy, and healing the culture.” This is a bit much because — ironically — it doesn’t claim enough. If their web site said “the best eggs in North America,” we could take it in the same spirit that we do when we see a restaurant sporting a sign that says “voted the best hamburger in Spokane.” We all understand hyperbole, and what the “cutest grandchild ever” means. But this seems to be a serious claim, and so I would dispute it on its own terms. I don’t believe feeding the world with boutique farms is “sustainable.” But — and this is important, crucial — I believe that we are enriched by the presence of Polyface Farms and similar endeavors, and this is because I believe that we are all enriched by liberty. If I am wrong about farming on this scale, and by these methods, and if we stay far away from coercion, we will see the market sort it out and farms like Polyface will spring up everywhere — and I will cheerfully eat a little organic crow. But I would rather it not be free-range crow. I’ve seen those guys on the highway.
One last comment about my writing on this and related issues. I am what Stewart Davenport would call — in his Friends of Unrighteous Mammon — a “clerical economist.” But though I am a minister, I am not willing to pronounce on menu choices from the pulpit. Tofu is adiaphora, and my views on it are not part of the ministerium. At the same time, I am willing to insist on certain closely related subjects. I am willing to insist on the correspondence view of objective truth, the authority of argument, logic as an attribute of God, hermeneutics as both art and science, the goodness of market liberties, and an absolute rejection of all amphigorial postmodernism. Within those liberating boundaries, the only authority I would want for my arguments would be located in the relative soundness of them.