Last Tuesday, the US Senate overwhelmingly passed food safety legislation that the Associated Press reports “potentially giv[es] the government broad new powers to increase inspections of food processing facilities and force companies to recall tainted food.” The lopsided vote on the bill, popular with both Democrats and Republicans, might seem to indicate that it promotes the uncontroversial goal of sheltering consumers from the menace of, for example, e. coli or salmonella.
Certainly such a bulwark, apparently bridling those acquisitive corporations that would irresponsibly market us biohazards to inflate their bottom lines, would appear a worthy project. Assuming that the proposed law would bring on genuine protection for the artless little guy, it would be difficult to quarrel with, but acts like this one do just the opposite.
As historian Gabriel Kolko argues in his shrewd masterwork of revisionism, The Triumph of Conservatism, “Important business elements [can] always be found in the forefront of agitation for such regulation, and … federal economic regulation [is] generally designed by the regulated interest to meet its own end, and not those of the public or the commonweal.” The function of the bill is to erect barriers to entry — hurdles such as restrictions on imports and increased administrative costs — that impede prospective competitors who cannot afford to jump through the hoops of the state-corporate elite.
While politicians have enjoyed touting the bill as putting the screws to derelict Big Agribusiness, the major food companies and the Chamber of Commerce rallied to its cause forthwith. It was, as the Associated Press observed, “advocates of … locally produced food and operators of small farms” that — fearing that it would “bankrupt some small businesses” — resisted the law.
Kolko points out that charges of collusion between commercial and government interests are regularly lumped together with “conspiracy theories” by those who accept the standard line that pits the two against one another. Warning against such generalizations, he urges consideration of the facts over nugatory “labels” and doesn’t bother to hazard his own guess as to whether corporate progressivism was the result of conspiracy or “open channels.”
Likewise, free market anarchists need not feel obliged to unravel the psychological or cultural predicates that drive the collusion between Big Business and Big Government. Whatever the language we use to explain their relationship, the state and the corporation entertain no confusion as to its fundamental nature. Supervisory rules that impose high costs on businesses actually serve to guarantee corporate profits, a system that — though it can be counterintuitive at first blush — makes perfect sense for the farming industrial complex.
By lobbying for laws that damage their small competitors, corporations can secure an uninterrupted revenue stream and drive prices far above the levels that a truly free market would allow. Considering that today’s food prices are completely sequestered from the experimental pressures of real free enterprise, is it any wonder that safety standards are as well?
When we talk about “safety” within the context of consumer products, what we’re really suggesting is some concept of accountability — not an argument for perfect protection from any possibility of contaminated food, but for some redress should an injury befall us. In our own lives, we take for granted that certain kinds of arrangements between free people are more suited to accountable behavior, but we readily abandon those unspoken precepts when we contemplate giant corporate producers of processed foods.
Although we wouldn’t think it permissible to arbitrarily levy needless, prohibitive expenses — i.e., functional penalties — on our neighbors, we accept it when rich, highly capitalized companies do the same to local farmers. If we reflect on the would-be supply excluded from its natural market of consumers by the state’s obstructive rules, we can begin to imagine just how much higher prices are today than they need to be.
What’s more, it’s no great leap to visualize, in the lack of complacent corporate free-riders, revitalized sanitation and food safety standards. Insofar as we have to buy their products at their prices with no real market to speak of, we’re fastened to endure whatever low bar they set for themselves through their state.