Animal Rightists -- Allies for Liberty?

Poor chickens. According to many animal rights advocates, they live unhappy lives. Maybe they do. (Though perhaps they should still thank their human caretakers for the gift of life.) Now the evaluation of the ethics of animal rights is not my concern here. Let's ask instead: why are the chickens so, uh... exploited? Well, it's because the farmers have come up with these objectionable to some people technologies to satisfy consumer demand for eggs and chicken meat and byproducts to the best of their ability. They are, as of today, the most technologically efficient methods of production. Since they lower the costs of doing business and ultimately prices, too, these foods are available even to the poorest of consumers.

But still, what about the miserable chickens? Isn't there a way to liberate them from the tyranny of indifferent and unenlightened consumers? I believe there is.

In a free society, there is perpetual economic and technological progress. The latter is always ahead, and at any given time there are many technologies that are not used in any mass production process. But let's focus on the former. There are right now those consumers, though they are in the minority, who prefer meat and eggs from healthier chickens (free-range, etc.), which, the advertising alleges, are better in quality, and so opt for the more expensive organic stuff. How could we increase both the absolute number of such consumers and their ratio to the rest of the chicken and egg lovers? How else than by speeding up the economic progress? As real wages rise with the wage / price ratio increasing, as it tends to happen under unhampered free markets, and the average person becomes richer, needs that could not be previously satisfied suddenly come within the reach of the masses. If it is true that chickens that are cared for by the farmers as if they were their own children produce vastly more delicious and healthy meat and eggs, even though such care is at least initially more expensive, the now wealthier consumers may choose precisely these goods. As Mises writes, "Modern wealth expresses itself above all in the cult of the body: hygiene, cleanliness, sport." The wealthier we are, the more attention, as a rule, we will devote to the fine art of maintaining health.

But that is not all. Much of the animal rights agitation concerns technological imperfections, as well. Consider medicine. Primitive medical equipment tends to fight the disease with a great deal of collateral damage. Sophisticated equipment, drugs, etc, on the other hand, fight the evil in the body without harming what is good. We should expect future technologies to keep maximizing the benefits to human beings while minimizing the harms, such as, say, negative environmental externalities. Civilization is about making proper distinctions. Here's how Genrich Altshuller, the creator of the TRIZ system for inventors described technological progress:

The Law of Ideality states that any technical system, throughout its lifetime, tends to become more reliable, simple, effective -- more ideal. Every time we improve a technical system, we nudge that system closer to Ideality. It costs less, requires less space, wastes less energy, etc.

Ideality always reflects the maximum utilization of existing resources, both internal and external to the system. The more free or readily available the resources utilized, the more ideal the system will be. ...

What happens when a system reaches Ideality? The mechanism disappears, while the function is performed.

(This last bit does not describe any sort of divine ex nihilo technology; Altshuller gives real-world examples in which this actually occurs.)

It is extremely probable that the current practice of chicken and egg production may be technologically inefficient and still admit much improvement. In 20 or 30 years things may change so much that the ethical concerns of animal rights advocates will no longer be relevant. For all we know, farmers will discover a more efficient process that is at the same time more humane to the animals. Higher quality products will become available at lower prices in the future than poorer quality products cost now. This is not a cynical attempt to defuse the concerns of the animal rights activists, but an observation that all living creatures serve man better when they are happy. Hence the increased demand for higher quality animal products will translate into more happiness for the animals.

Unfortunately, the present level of both technology and economic well-being simply does not allow right now for better treatment of chickens. There are more pressing concerns to be taken care of first. The quality / price combinations available to the consumers at this moment are what they are, and we have to accept that. It follows that instead of despising and sabotaging the market as animal rights activists are apt to do, they must join forces with the proponents of human liberty in order to achieve maximum possible economic and technological progress and thereby lighten the load on animals. If this progress continues, then that the conditions of domesticated animals will improve with time is next to certain.

Furthermore, if the ethical arguments of the animal rights / welfare folks are correct, then their influence will only increase if the practical concerns of the average man of putting food on the table can be met with greater ease. People listen to moralists, especially those who seem to demand unfamiliar new sacrifices, more sympathetically when they don't have to worry overmuch about the cost of the necessities of life.

Unfortunately, the animal rights crowd does not recognize that this progress takes time. They want animal "liberation," whatever that means, right now. They will fail. The only means to the happiness of animals is through the happiness of humans.

Consider a paradox to drive the point home, this time with respect to wild animals. Suppose I find a beetle in my apartment. It's quite possible, if the beetle is good-looking, that I would want to save it by catching it and throwing it outside. Now suppose in a quite different situation that there are 1,000 beetles in my apartment. I couldn't live there. I'd have to kill them all and, what's more, I would feel no remorse. Wild nature is full of organisms that want us dead or sick so that they can eat us or use us to procreate. They attack our crops and livestock with equal mercilessness. So, in the wilderness, it's either us or them. It is only when nature is tamed and controlled, that some kind of extension of charity to animals, such as pets, is possible. Those animal rights advocates who celebrate primitivism destroy their own cause. Without civilization, there will be much less fellow-feeling for animals, because the war between man and nature will return to the state in which man will care only for his own survival and, in fact, will fear and loathe nature.

There is an inconsistency here regarding our economics. On the one hand, people are remarkably impatient, demanding constant improvement from the economy, as I have suggested the pro-animal people subconsciously do (or at least consciously should). On the other hand, they show themselves indifferent to public affairs in that they have given the federal government tremendous powers to determine economic policy and so docilely take whatever it gives them. With regard to the welfare of animals, this attitude is not going to cut it!

What is to be done? I suggest that we envision a society in which money is sound and as good as gold; in which no human association larger than a city is allowed to impose taxes; and in which there is no such thing as government borrowing. A society in which there are no state-run enterprises, such as public schools, and in which private enterprise is free, rather than regimented in the name of clamping down on competition. A society in which -- and this regards our chickens in particular -- there is no government intervention in agriculture. (Many more reforms could be proposed, but that is not important right now.) If we had a society like that, then the rate of economic progress would increase many-fold. And the chickens would be the beneficiaries.

June 2, 2006

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