Sunday 19 February 2012

A prohibitionist writes

Are you ready? Then we'll begin.

Abolish the Food Industry

Bang! That's the headline of this piece from The Atlantic. It sprang from the biro of Raj Patel. Dick Puddlecote's readers may recall the name. He thinks that each hamburgers "costs" society $200 in terms of environmental destruction and obesity. That is nonsense but, as we shall see, nonsense is Mr Patel's middle name.

He begins his article with a line of which the Daily Mash would be proud...

In the fall of 2008, San Francisco polished its progressive credentials by banning something.

Isn't that beautiful? I wish I'd thought of that. The essence of both "progressives" and the city of San Francisco encapsulated in one simple sentence.

He is referring to a ban on pharmacies selling cigarettes. This leads him to discuss tobacco advertising...

Joe Camel isn't familiar to children today, as he was in the 1970s

The first Joe Camel advertisement appeared in 1988, but never mind.

He then moves seamlessly onto alcohol...

Alcohol is similarly circumscribed, again with an eye to public health and, again, with a particular concern for young people.

And then comes the kicker...

But if public health is a legitimate reason to curb corporations' advertising to kids, why limit bans to cigarettes and booze, and not include, say, unhealthy food?

A very familiar argument, of course—the proverbial slippery slope. Last week we saw a textbook case of how one ban on "corporations' advertising to kids" snowballs; see JuliaM's post at Orphans of Liberty. Patel's article is one long attempt to blur the distinction between products while rehabilitating the reputation of prohibition. After giving a shout out to last month's risible 'toxic sugar' article, he brings his argument to its logical conclusion.

Why allow an industry that profits from the sale of unhealthy food at all?

Boom! He gets from a ban on cigarettes in pharmacies to the abolition of the food industry in three easy steps. This is world-class stuff.

The history of banning things is admittedly inglorious. 

No fooling.

The war on drugs, Prohibition, and censorship have few fans.

More than you might think, Raj. Take Robert Proctor, for example, who has recently published a weighty tome about smoking in which he calls for tobacco prohibition. Patel very much admires Proctor, of course, but dare not mention the P word. Instead, he talks about 'abolition'.

[Proctor] doesn't want to ban smoking. The language of abolition -- not prohibition -- is well chosen. Proctor doesn't yearn for the criminalization of smokers, nor does he foresee the end of cigarettes or tobacco.

See, he's not one of those nasty prohibitionists. The very idea!

He's simply arguing that the industry that profits from it oughtn't to exist in a society that has a minimum concern with public health. If you want to smoke, you're free to grow and cure your own tobacco, he suggests.

Gee, thanks. Nice of you to compromise on that, Proctor.

Look, here's the thing. People were free to make their own alcohol during Prohibition. Drinking was never illegal. Prohibition "only" outlawed was the sale, import and manufacture of alcohol. Just like Proctor, the prohibitionists blamed an industry for a habit which they detested. They thought that if they put the industry out of business, drinking would virtually disappear. They couldn't imagine that people drank because they liked it, just as today's tobacco prohibitionists cannot imagine that people smoke because they like it.

There is no difference whatsoever between Proctor's position and the position of the Anti-Saloon League. Indeed, the Anti-Saloon League was more moderate in that they allowed alcohol to be sold under certain conditions (religious ceremonies, medical use etc.). Proctor is, in the most literal sense, a prohibitionist.

And so is Patel...

...our food choices are far from free, in no small part because of the commercial and cultural power of the food industry. Weaned as most of us are on Big Food's free speech, we ought to be suspicious of our instincts when it comes to food.

What fresh sophistry is this? Free speech makes us less free? This is the rhetoric of every totalitarian—that "true" freedom comes from restricting freedom. That speech should be free unless the government doesn't like what is being said.

The food industry is an oligopoly that has transformed not only what we eat but how we eat it, and what we think of food.

The food industry is not an oligopoly. Their are millions of farms, millions of individual retailers and millions of independently owned restaurants. The very fact that food is so cheap is a reflection of the competitive market. If you don't like McDonald's and Tesco, you can go to a fruit and veg stall or your local restaurant. The barriers to entry are low.

Extending Proctor's argument to those very corporate powers invites us to imagine what a world without Big Food might look like -- and dream ourselves freer still.

Extending Proctor's arguments would mean abolishing the food industry while leaving us "free" to grow our own food, just as we will be "free" to grow our own tobacco. This is the kind of half-witted back-to-the-land garbage we hear from the New Economics Foundation and other upper-middle class misanthropists. Half the world would be "free" to live like medieval serfs and the other half would be free to starve. Get thee behind me, Patel.


Jay said...

Could you imagine, just for a moment, if Proctor's "free to grow your own" abolition movement succeeds. Imagine, please, the prohibitionists moving on to the next "logical" phase of their movement: attacking the seed sellers. "You're selling seeds of death! Cancer-seed merchants!" So, then, we would then ultimately end up with yet another ban, with militarised SWAT teams raiding people's homes and greenhouses, to rid the world of the evil tobacco plant epidemic. All in the name of public health. You can stop imagining now.

Anonymous said...

The next "logical" step.

"Researchers at East Malling Research are helping to grow genetically-modified tobacco plants which give off a potentially life-saving drug through their roots."

"Tobacco is an ideal non-food crop for this research, thanks to the speed it grows and matures and our deep knowledge of its physiology and transformability, which has been the focus of scientific attention for more than 20 years."

Anonymous said...

I am so incensed I don't know where to begin. I wonder if any of these idiots have given a single moments thought to parts of the world where being "free" to grow your own food or anything else for that matter, would not do you one iota of good. I live in the arctic, the fucking arctic guys are you listening. It takes huge areas of land and immense labour to generate a crop here, storage is a problem too. The food industry has generated efficient production techniques, storage technologies that extend shelf life and reduce waste, including methods for reprocessing minimal value raw materials such as surimi and reconstituted meat. Oh, how horrid, the well padded middle classes shout, reconstituted meat, oh how awful, oh that terrible BIG FOOD, (BIG OIL, BIG TOBACCO) BIG WHATEVER NEXT. A significant proportion of the worlds population lives in areas that ARE NOT fertile, temperate and effortlessly productive. WE NEED food processing and preservation technologies, we do not need back to nature fantasists.

nisakiman said...

"This is the rhetoric of every totalitarian—that "true" freedom comes from restricting freedom."

"Arbeit Macht Frei"