Monday, July 29, 2002


A good friend of mine, a philosophy professor, and I just had an argument about what is wrong with the world. As usual, I found him unbelievably dense, if not dumb, as I seem to find much liberal thought. But this is a really bright guy. He's not dumb. I'm not evil. But, in the heat of argument, he seems to think I am. He says that I want my children to breathe filth. I say that he wants to render our country into poverty. Today, we can't agree upon -- beef.

He says that beef contains too many bacteria. I say that humans are a carrion eating species, and I like my beef well aged and tender. He says that I want to kill the children, I say let them pay for quality, or eat rice. If Ralph Nader's beef standards are instituted, they won't have any choice. Today, they have the choice. In fact, they have more choices than any children in history. I say that excessive regulation only serves to raise the price of beef, and will only drive the children to a bread and water diet. And I'm the elitist? He says that people like me should pay extra so that the children of the less fortunate can enjoy more beef. I say that there is nothing wrong with the beef supply, that new regulations are not needed. He says that one thousand people die from tainted food every year. I say that if they die from food bought in an American supermarket, they were about to die from something else anyway.

This debate goes to the heart of what freedom means. This is the essence of our national debate. The divide between socialism and barbarism. My friend is no socialist, but an entrepreneur (there isn't enough money in philosophy to make it as a full time gig, and support his lifestyle). I am no barbarian (if you don't read my email). Neither of us wants to see anyone die of food poisoning. But I favor freedom in the way he favors safety. He would have everyone with a sufficiently large income to pay for everyone to be completely safe. I think he's innumerate. The cost of such safety would be enormous. If we made my friend king, even he would have to make tradeoffs between cost and safety.

Beef is on my mind these days because I am on a low carbohydrate diet. Meat and cheese make up almost my entire menu these days. Rib eye steak runs about $8 per pound, and I don't want to pay $10 or $15. Carbohydrates are cheap, but if I ate more of them my cholesterol would go up to where it was before I got on this diet. (that's another subject... My friend wants to make my entire diet illegal, but then he wants to ratify Kyoto, and... that's another subject.) But this little colloquy shows part of the reason why we can't all just get along. We humans are incredibly opinionated, which means that we magnify our differences when we argue. But this is marginal subject matter. The debate is given great weight when the single issue people get into it. The meat packers, farmers, retailers, and others have huge amounts of money riding on the fine print in any new regulation scheme that affects their businesses. The public advocacy groups have their leaders' (and staff's) careers dependent for their very survival on pushing new regulations and showing a victory against the evil, greedy purveyors of poison. Both sides hire lobbyists and lawyers to cajole and sue and generally make a big fuss over the beef issue. Of course there are ordinary Americans who are energized by the beef debate, but they are few: most people find many issues to be of greater importance. But, whatever side we take, the other side is suspicious of our motives. Do I wish to sacrifice the lives of my children in pursuit of cheaper food for myself? Does a mother of small children desire to extort money from me in order to eat higher up on the food chain at my expense?

I may plead the case vociferously, but I know in my heart that market forces will not solve all the problems of mankind. I (try to) believe that my friend would balk at a proposal to regulate the contents of human mother's milk. In the heat of the moment, it doesn't sound that way. But the heat from my barbeque is calling me, we'll talk more on this later.