Back in April, I posted part of an email from a Fat Head fan I happen to have met in person, since he lives nearby:
My six-year-old niece Megan started school yesterday, her first day of school. She was already scared and upset and crying. After lunch, she went into orbit, threw up everywhere because she was so upset, and ultimately had to leave school. My brother, who has been looking desperately for work, had to cancel a “sure thing” job interview to go get her because the school was sending her home. Here’s the word from my dad on what happened:
What prompted the whole issue yesterday was Meagan’s teacher taking her lunch, which she had brought from home, away from her. David [my brother] had packed yogurt and fresh fruit, which Meagan likes. Her teacher told her mother that the school has to ensure that the children have a nutritious lunch, so they took Meagan’s yogurt and fruit and insisted she eat a corn dog. What a brilliant plan from a so-called “educator.”
At the time, a couple of other readers wondered if the story was true. I understand their doubt … after all, this doesn’t sound like something that should ever happen in a supposedly free country.
Well, we can put any lingering doubts to rest, because it happened again this week in a story that was widely reported. Here’s part of a newspaper account:
A preschooler at West Hoke Elementary School ate three chicken nuggets for lunch Jan. 30 because the school told her the lunch her mother packed was not nutritious.
The girl’s turkey and cheese sandwich, banana, potato chips, and apple juice did not meet U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines, according to the interpretation of the person who was inspecting all lunch boxes in the More at Four classroom that day.
The Division of Child Development and Early Education at the Department of Health and Human Services requires all lunches served in pre-kindergarten programs – including in-home day care centers – to meet USDA guidelines. That means lunches must consist of one serving of meat, one serving of milk, one serving of grain, and two servings of fruit or vegetables, even if the lunches are brought from home. When home-packed lunches do not include all of the required items, child care providers must supplement them with the missing ones.
That’s not a lunch I’d pack for my girls, but of course that’s not the issue here. The issue is: why the @#$% is some bozo from the federal government telling a mom in North Carolina what she may and may not pack in her own kid’s lunch? And why are putting up with it?
The girl’s mother – who said she wishes to remain anonymous to protect her daughter from retaliation – said she received a note from the school stating that students who did not bring a “healthy lunch” would be offered the missing portions, which could result in a fee from the cafeteria, in her case $1.25.
Well, that’s just peachy that the school will “offer” the missing foods. The only problem is that when government officials make you an “offer,” it’s an offer you can’t refuse.
“Hi, we’re from the government, and we’d like to offer you this approved lunch.”
“You don’t understand. We’re offering it to you.”
“Yeah, I got that. But I don’t want it. My kid won’t eat that stuff anyway.”
“Madam, let’s try this again. We’re offering you this lunch.”
“Uh … no thanks?”
“That will be $1.25. If you don’t pay, there will be a series of demands and further fines. If you choose to ignore them, this process will culminate with armed men showing up at your door. We are the government, after all. Now, would you like to take us up on our offer?”
WARNING: HERE COMES THE POLITICAL RANT
One of the great mysteries I’ve yet to solve is the people I’ve met who fully understand how badly our government screwed up the official dietary guidelines, fully understand that the USDA is far more interested in selling particular agricultural products than in promoting health, and yet still believe a big, powerful, intrusive government is necessary to prevent people from engaging in behaviors or making decisions some of us don’t happen to like. Then, after voting to grant government officials the power to insert themselves into our lives, they are shocked – shocked! – that the USDA would order school kids to pack a lunch that includes foods some of us may not want our kids to eat.
Here’s my question for those people: What the @#$% did you think was going to happen?!! This kind of nonsense from a government empowered to sticks its nose in everyone’s business is not only unsurprising, it’s utterly predictable.
Yes, yes, I can hear the retorts already … oh, well, sure, but we still the government to regulate our food supply … blah-blah-blah … government needs to help the stupid people who don’t know any better … blah-blah-blah … if we can just get the USDA to changes its policies … blah-blah-blah … we just need to get the right people in there … blah-blah-blah.
I’ve got news for you: we’ll never get the right people in there. The right people have no interest in wielding that kind of power over others.
People who’ve never read a single book on libertarianism and yet (stunningly) nonetheless imagine they know what libertarians think like to paint us as starry-eyed dreamers who believe businessmen are all kind-hearted angels … whereas they (not sharing our blissful ignorance) understand that without federal agencies issuing and enforcing a gazillion regulations, big bad business would run roughshod over us all.
That is not what libertarians believe. The seminal work on free-market economics was The Wealth of Nations, written by Adam Smith in 1776. Smith actually had a rather low opinion of the merchant class. In chapter after chapter, he shared his observation that people (including merchants) operate out of their own self-interest, period. Or if you prefer a more negative connotation, people act out of greed.
What Smith (unlike many contemporaries) also recognized is that government regulators are just self-interested as everyone else. When governments are granted the power to regulate economic activities, he warned, it’s only a matter of time before the greedy businessmen and the greedy government regulators get together and screw the rest of us for their own benefit. By stifling freedom and competition, regulators can make their hand-picked producers (and themselves) richer, while making the rest of the population poorer by denying them products that are better or cheaper or both.
Take government’s coercive powers out of the equation and all a merchant can do to you is offer you a product and hope you buy it. (We’re talking about a genuine offer here, not the kind of “offer” we get from government officials.) That requires businesses to compete with each other for customers, which in turn leads to better products, better service, lower prices, innovation and higher productivity. In short, Smith argued that the economic system that produces the most wealth and the highest degree of consumer satisfaction is one based on voluntary exchanges – free markets. Economic freedom makes the natural greed of the merchant work in our favor.
The attorneys who buy my docketing software can attest to this. I produced a better, cheaper docketing system for trademark and patent attorneys. I undercut my competition. I did this not because I love attorneys, but because I want their money. The attorneys benefited from my self-interest and “greed.”
Despite what some people will tell you, a market system based on voluntary exchanges does not mean that evil businessmen are allowed to screw people and get away with it. If a business defrauds you, you didn’t volunteer for that. If a product turns out to be faulty, you didn’t get what you agreed to buy, which means you didn’t volunteer for that. If a product kills or maims you, you didn’t volunteer for that. In any of those situations, the business should be rigorously punished. That’s the government’s legitimate job – to protect you from violence and fraud.
A free market simply means that if I want to sell you a product or service and you want to buy it, no third party gets to step in and prevent us from making that voluntary exchange. It also means no one gets to force us to make exchanges we don’t want to make … like, say, being ordered to buy a USDA-approved lunch for our children.
So what does all this economic theory have to do with the USDA and our inability to get the right people running it? I’m getting to that. Be patient.
As the great economics writer Thomas Sowell has pointed out many times, government agencies created to regulate a particular industry nearly always end up being run by muckety-mucks from that same industry – who then create policies to benefit the industry as whole or particular segments operating within it. We just saw that again recently when Obama appointed an executive from Monsanto – one of the worst corporations on the planet — to a high-level post in the USDA.
So why does this always seem to happen? Why do the foxes always seem to end up guarding the henhouse? Why can’t we get the right people in those agencies?
It all gets back to people acting in their own self-interest.
Once a government acquires the power to regulate an industry, it also has the ability to rig the game in ways that can be worth millions to particular corporations or segments of that industry. Being self-interested (and certainly not being stupid), the muckety-mucks from that industry recognize that if they can leverage government’s coercive powers, they can enrich themselves. Are there competitors we don’t like? No problem … we just need some health and safety regulations that cripple them. Is our industry faltering, or just not making as much profit as we’d like? Simple … we declare what we produce a public necessity and get some generous government subsidies. In other words, if we can just take away other people’s freedom to engage in voluntary exchanges and make their own decisions, we can do really, really well for ourselves!
To acquire this economic leverage, the muckety-mucks buy political influence through campaign contributions, junkets to exotic places, or offers of lucrative jobs for retiring politicians and regulators. The politicians and regulators are happy to let themselves be bought – it’s in their self-interest, after all. In many cases, generous industry donors end up being rewarded by seeing their executives placed in high positions with regulatory agencies. Those regulators certainly aren’t going to risk pissing off the industry that placed them in their jobs – after all, they’ll probably return to that industry when their government “service” is over. It’s in their self-interest to play along.
If only some crazed regulator would actually stand up and declare, “I’m issuing this regulation to please the people who bought my influence with their hard-earned dollars,” I might the find practice barely tolerable. But of course, that’s never what we’re told. We’re told the gazillion new regulations issued every year are necessary to protect the public. Riiiiight.
Protecting the public is the nominal excuse for all kinds of ridiculous legislation. Back when fellow comedian Tim Slagle and I were producing a political comedy show called The Slagle-Naughton Report, one of our bits highlighted a new regulation in Illinois that made it illegal to charge a fee to braid someone’s hair without first attending beauty school and obtaining a license. The regulation was rammed through at the behest of – you guessed it – beauty-shop owners who didn’t like the competition from cheap hair-braiding salons run by (horrors!) unqualified people — otherwise known as “poor people” and “immigrants.”
Now … can anyone explain to me exactly what threat to public health this regulation was intended to avoid? (Our bit ended with Slagle announcing, “In a related story, five people were rushed to Northwestern Hospital this week with bad braids.”) If you don’t like the way your hair was braided, you undo the braids and stop patronizing that shop. End of story. But thanks to a bit of influence-buying, the beauty-shop owners got their regulation passed … to protect the public, of course.
Over time, officially-sanctioned coercive power nearly always ends up in the wrong hands. That’s why we’ll never, ever get the right people running the USDA. The USDA is now and always will be largely populated by people from the grain industry. They will happily subsidize grains with your tax dollars, then happily order all schools, prisons, military bases and every other government institution to serve grains at every meal … an instant, huge, lucrative, reliable market, all created with the stroke of a legislative pen. The industry is happy, the politicians are happy, and the contributions and post-Washington job offers will keep flowing.
And here’s the real kicker: Most of these people probably consider themselves good public servants. As Milton Friedman noted in one of his books, people have an inexhaustible capacity to believe that whatever is good for them personally is also good for the public at large. Human beings are geniuses at justifying their own behavior. (I was made even more aware of this after having children.)
You and I can be angry about it, we can bang our heads on our desks about it, we can blog about it, Facebook and Twitter about it, but we will never be able to out-bribe the likes of Monsanto, ConAgra and Archer Daniels Midland. As long as the federal government has the power to order kids to include particular items in their school lunches, Big Food and Big Agriculture will always end up writing (if indirectly) the rules.
That’s why pizza is still counted as a vegetable. That’s why if the big dairy producers in your state don’t want you buying raw milk from local farmers, raw milk will be declared a health hazard and banned. That’s why whole milk is banned in schools, while low-fat chocolate milk sweetened with garbage produced by the Corn Refiners is okay. And that’s why the parents of school kids are told if they don’t pack a government-approved lunch, they’ll be fined.
We will never change this nonsense by trying to convince the USDA their dietary advice is misguided. They can’t be convinced. It’s not in their interest to be convinced. The only cure is to take away their power — and you will never take away the government’s power by asking it to pretty please do the right thing and only take away the freedoms you personally don’t think other people should have. You take away government’s power by telling it @#$% off and leave all of us alone unless we’re actually harming someone.
In short, if you support government controlling other people’s choices, you have no right to complain when your choices end up on the verboten list. Sieg Heil!
Okay, I’m done ranting … for now.
(Note to Rick Perry: the next time a debate moderator asks you which three federal agencies you’d dissolve, the third item on your list should be the USDA. Given that absolutely everybody needs to eat, I think it’s extremely unlikely we’d stop producing enough food if the industry were left to free-market forces.)