It isn’t often that one finds a damning indictment of state regulation in the pages of the Guardian, so I cannot possibly let this opportunity slip by unblogged.
The background to this comes courtesy of one of these ‘food safety scandals’ that periodically burst into the media spotlight and engender all manner of ‘shock, horror’ headlines before slipping quietly down the memory hole into oblivion. This time, the scandal involves chicken. Or, more accurately, a simulacrum of chicken because it appears that the British market is being flooded with cheap chicken products that have been pumped with water to artificially inflate them and stuffed full of hydrogenated beef proteins.
And the distributors are getting away with it, despite the existance of a plethora of complex food safety and labelling regulations and whole slew of portentious-sounding Euro-agencies to enforce them. The Guardian’s Felicity Lawrence is beside herself:
The food standards agency, which we might expect to be our champions in the matter of food quality, seems to think this is all right so long as someone mentions it on a label at some point. Except, of course, since they communicate in Euro-regulation speak, what the white rabbit actually says as he puts on his spectacles is: “This is a labelling issue and a composition issue. It is not a public safety issue.”
So it turns out that all these bureaucrats are good for is issuing sanctimonious press releases and little else. I believe that Ms.Lawrence has (quite accidentally of course) stumbled upon the principle of moral hazard. She, like many others, has hitherto placed her faith in regulations and state enforcers to ensure the quality and safety she requires, only to find that she is left dangling when the crunch comes.
But her tale of woe does have a happy ending. Almost certainly through frustration rather than dazzling insight, Ms.Lawrence comes to exactly the right conclusion:
We must wake up to the reality and to the fact that no one but ourselves will sort it out. Don’t buy cheap chicken.
Bingo! Hopefully Ms.Lawrence has now come to appreciate the perils of assigning over personal responsibility to agents of the state and then hoping and praying that they do the right thing by you. They rarely have and they rarely will.
Regulatory regimes are not just a waste of time and effort, they are actually damaging. They suck a huge amount of otherwise-productive wealth out of society that ends up translated into nothing except sinecure jobs and state pensions.
In any event, the only traders who bother to comply with all these regulations are the ones who are worried about their reputation and, ironically, it is those traders who can be relied upon to provide us with good quality products without the monkey of the state on their backs. They want to make money and stay in business and they don’t achieve those aims by poisoning their customers or brushing them off with inferior, shoddy goods.
So let’s take all these regulations and put them on a bonfire. Yes, there will still be rogues and con-men but, as this story has clearly illustrated, enacting more laws doesn’t stop them anyway. The combination of profit-motive on the supply side and a bit of personal responsibility on the part of the consumer is a better recipe for safety and quality than any number of faceless pen-pushers wielding absurd and counter-productive diktats.