GMO Food

Where Are All the "Food Libertarians"?

An interview with Jayson Lusk, whose new report indicates most Americans want more food police


Pleasure-hating martinet lectures Olympic gold medalist about health and dieting.

A fascinating new study in the journal Food Policy, "The Political Ideology of Food," by agricultural economist Jayson Lusk of Oklahoma State University, concludes that the great majority of Americans support increasing the extent to which food is regulated. The study, based on survey research Prof. Lusk carried out, argues that when it comes to issues of food, Americans of varying ideological stripes—including libertarians—favor a more paternalistic state.

Lusk's online survey of 700 people looked at "the nature of citizen's political ideologies in relation to food." He concludes "that a majority of respondents can be classified as 'food statists,'" which he defines as those who support "more government action in the realm food and agricultural relative to the status quo."

Because Lusk's findings indicate that people of all ideological stripes—including those who generally favor limited government—support increasing greater regulation of food, he suggests it may be the case that "food ideology represents a unique construct in its own right."

Certainly, I take issue with some of the wording and placement of the survey questions—which would appear to me in places to lead survey takers to particular statist choices. For example, the survey places the more statist options first and the food freedom options last in the question order; posits greater regulations as "[g]uarantee[ing] a safe food supply" — something even advocates of food safety would agree is a practical impossibility — and uses what some would consider loaded terminology (i.e., "factory farming," "controversial," and "unhealthy").

I also flatly disagree with the results of Lusk's research because I believe (based largely on anecdotal evidence) that people who self-identify as libertarian on the one hand, and people who champion food freedom on the other hand, make up a much larger percentage of the population than this research would indicate. Others agree.

But while Lusk's conclusions would seem to be in line with what many food nannies have long contended—and would appear equally to be designed to irk many libertarians, conservatives, and even liberals — I urge you not to shoot the messenger.

Why not? Though my column would have been much easier to write if it were the case that Lusk's article was a garden-variety hatchet job, it's not that at all.

Consider first that Lusk nowhere touts his research as a clarion call for increased regulation of the food supply. In fact, Lusk's article concludes largely the opposite:

One important factor that our survey did not address is whether public support for food and agricultural policies will remain high when people are made more aware of the specific costs of government action in this area. Many economists, including myself, have been critical of many of the policies this sample of consumers found so favorable, in part because it does not appear the benefits outweigh the costs. Only time will tell whether economic analysis on these matters will have any influence on the public's ideologies with respect to food.

Consider, too, that none other than Nobel Prize-winning economist Vernon Smith had great things to say about a 2008 book by Lusk, that Lusk's 2011 book on animal welfare appears pretty damn interesting and objective, that some of Lusk's earlier research played down the value of fat taxes, and that the title of Lusk's forthcoming book, The Food Police: A Well Fed Manifesto about the Politics of Your Plate, largely speaks for itself.  Add to this the fact that Lusk appears to be the rare honest researcher willing to publish a study that doesn't simply bolster the views the researcher held before he or she carried out the research.

Food Police

I spoke this week with Prof. Lusk, who kindly replied in a subsequent email to a few questions about his Food Policy article.

ReasonVarious surveys I've seen put the percentage of people who self-identify as libertarian or who hold libertarian views in the range of 10-25 percent. For example, a recent Reason-Rupe poll put the number at 24%. (Other polls.) Yet your research finds only 5 percent are ideologically "food libertarian." Among other implications, such a result would mean that libertarians are somehow less libertarian when it comes to food issues. Can you explain the discrepancy?

Jayson Lusk: In my survey, I find about 20-27% of people (depending on how strictly I define the classification criteria) are libertarians based on answers to the [P]olitopia quiz. This group of libertarians, in fact, prefers less regulation on farm policy issues and less regulation on what I call "food quality and quality" issues. It is only "food safety" issues where the libertarians prefer more regulation. When I look specifically at what most of them said they preferred, it tended to relate to a desire to have more mandatory labeling of foods according to origin of production and use of genetic modification, cloning, irradiation, or nanotechnology. I can only speculate about why such preferences were expressed among libertarians, but perhaps it relates to a belief that labels promote "truth in advertising" or provide information needed to avoid deception in trade among food sellers and buyers. Alternatively, libertarians may believe such labels promote choice and availability of many food options. I think the latter assumption would be misplaced. Take, for example, Europe which requires mandatory labeling of GMOs in food. In Europe, there essentially are no GMO-labeled foods on the market – so choice has essentially been removed (at least for those who would prefer the cheaper GM alternative). In the US, we do not have mandatory labeling and yet people who want to avoid GMOs can buy organic or products with GM-free certifications, which are available in most supermarkets. There is more choice in the US precisely because of the absence of mandatory labels.

ReasonOn a related note, I would argue (though I freely admit I have only anecdotal data, which includes what I've seen to be the trans-ideological appeal of many of my Reason columns) that libertarians are even more libertarian when it comes to food issues, and that conservatives and liberals tend to hold more libertarian views on food law and policy issues. Can you explain that discrepancy?

JL: I disagree. While this may be true for some issues like banning food donations to homeless shelters, banning sales of non-pasteurized milk, or shutting down the kid's lemonade stand, I don't believe it is true for what I perceive to be more serious issues like fat taxes, bans on cages in egg and pork production, adding purchasing requirements to boost local food sales, banning certain food advertisements, requiring schools to serve more veggies, and perhaps most importantly, restricting or banning modern food technologies like GMOs, growth promotants, pesticides, nanotechnology, and cloning.

ReasonMost of your questions are centered around the issue of people's satisfaction with current food policies and/or levels of food regulation. In my opinion, food is highly regulated at the federal, state, and local levels. Is it possible that your respondents wrongly believe food is not regulated very much at all, and so they perceive a need for more regulations to fill a void that — at least in my opinion — is an imaginary one? Alternately, is it possible that people who want things like safer food (which I agree is something an overwhelming majority of people do want) are unaware that — as I've written — food is already highly regulated and that more regulations don't necessarily make food safer?

JL: Yes, it may be that people are unaware of many of the existing regulations. More fundamentally, however, I think we have a food culture (think Micha[el] Pollan, Oprah Winfrey, or Mark Bittman) that has promoted mistrust in modern food and agriculture, which has produced a misleading belief about the state of food in America. Our food system has never been safer or higher quality but this is not the image most people have in mind when they think about our modern food system. Moreover, the pervading food culture seems to have forgotten the incentives farmers, food companies, and supermarkets to provide safe and affordable food. "Big Food" has been demonized and people perceive "Big Food" as some sort of omniscient manipulator, but I would posit that many of the companies in this category are one food safety scare away from bankruptcy. If I'm right, what do you think are their incentives to produce safe food?

ReasonWhat do you think are the implications of your study for those who, like me, believe in what I call food freedom–the right to grow, raise, produce, buy, sell, share, cook, eat, and drink the foods of our own choosing?

JL: As I mentioned to you, I have a book coming out in April titled The Food Police: A Well Fed Manifesto about the Politics of Your Plate, published by Crown Forum. So, I personally find the results a bit disheartening though not totally surprising. Food is a highly emotional issue, and when many people see things they don't like about food – whether it be obesity, pesticides, or gestation crates – it is a natural impulse to seek redress via the government. The way I interpret these results is that they reflect people's gut reaction when it comes to food regulation. However, the study doesn't tell us anything about whether people may change their mind when informed of the costs or unintended consequences of these policies. Moreover, I have spent the last 15 years studying consumer behavior when it comes to food, and a couple things are quite clear. First, the research shows people are much less supportive of regulation when they are informed of the costs. Second, my research shows that what people say on surveys often fails to line up with what they actually do in the grocery store. People often express much higher willingness-to-pay to avoid new food technologies than what they are really willing to pay when real money and real food is on the line. So, while I believe this survey is informative and perhaps the only way to get at some of the issues we want to know about, the results must be taken with a grain of salt. That said, I think those of us that would prefer more freedom in food have a tough road ahead in terms of convincing our friends and neighbors on some of these issues. I personally believe there are some real dangers in the ramping up of food regulation that endanger our ability to eat affordable, high quality food. Fortunately, we have a good case to make and reason is on our side.

Baylen J. Linnekin, a lawyer, is executive director of Keep Food Legal, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit that advocates in favor of food freedom—the right to grow, raise, produce, buy, sell, share, cook, eat, and drink the foods of our own choosing.

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  1. take a close look at the photo – could Gabby possibly sit any further away from Michelle? Body language screams at times.

    1. She’s also sitting as close as possible to Jay Leno, who was the one actually interviewing her. So there’s that.

      1. Yeah, the look on her face isn’t exactly horrified.

        1. I dunno. That’s as close to a smile of sheer nervous terror that I’ve ever seen.

          LET HER WIN!

    2. Nobody wants to be too close to a disgusting pig.

    3. Michelle is a close talker.

  2. The GMO thing is, in my experience, where the majority of self-described paleo food libertarians become statists. Next comes CAFO. And then there’s the less libertarian paleo-ish who think that regulating sugar is the solution. If only the right regulations were employed, blah blah blah.

    1. Do you have any examples to back up your statements? How do libertarians become statists on the GMO thing? On CAFO? Sugar?

      I do not know any libertarians on this site that say we need the right regulations employed, blah blah.

      1. I’ve been blogging about paleo-ish type diet for several years and this is my general impression.

        I’m too lazy to look up examples right now but I’m not talking about people who post on this site, I’m talking about paleo bloggers who self-identify as libertarians or libertarianish yet still revert to statism when it comes to things like CAFO and GMO.

        1. Fair enough.

          But how do the pale bloggers become statists on CAFO y GMO? Not being snarky, I would actually like to know in general terms.

          1. They all say “There ought to be a law banning GMOs/requiring that they be labeled!”

            1. Or banning CAFOs… or whatever.

              1. That hasn’t been my experience, and I’m sure lots of Salatin-style libs agree.

                The only reason CAFOs exist is because of masssive corn subsidies. Strip that from the system and leave everything else alone, and it becomes far easier for humane grass farmers to compete with the big boys who are now forced to pay for feed out of their own pockets rather than reaching into the taxpayer’s.

                Loosen regulations even more and you’ll see an explosion of family farms and innovation in much the same way that America has seen an explosion of craft beer.

            2. I run across these guys all the time. They tend to come to the libertarian-diet-du-jour from a variety of starting points, but they all end up in a weird anti-corporatist mindset when it comes to food. Usually it’s limited to demands for strict labeling, but sometimes they really do want to ban certain foods.

              To them Monsanto is the greatest evil.

          2. I think statism is the default position for people in general. There ought to be a law…herp derp.

            There’s an excellent case to be made that free range animals are much healthier than CAFO animals. Does that mean that CAFO ought to be illegal?

            In my opinion this is all about crony capitalism, but many people are quick to blame big ag (Big Farma), and this includes a lot of people with libertarian leanings.

            1. Most people don’t understand that what makes Big-Anything a problem (i.e. Big) is the crony thing.

              Phony Tony-Chony doesn’t understand the crony.

            2. I don’t think you can be a libertarian and believe in so many stupid laws like the ones mentioned above.

    2. There’s a large degree of log-rolling when it comes to non-conformists. Those who are marginalized in some way or other seek each other, lisen to each other, and may sympathize with each other’s causes. Check out the Natural Solutions Foundation, which I’ve been working on projects with. Ralph Fucetola’s an old-time movement radical libertarian, but with Rima Laibow and Bert Stubblebine they come out so much against GMO that you’d think Ralph was a statist on the issue.

  3. I also flatly disagree with the results of Lusk’s research because I believe (based largely on anecdotal evidence)

    I consider an “online survey of 700 people” anecdotal evidence. Disagree away.

    1. Hell, an “online survey of 700 people” isn’t even anecdotal evidence. It’s fishing for a specific result, or it is so prone to become so that one might be excused in assuming it to be fiction.

      1. A sample size of 700 yields a sampling error of +\- 3%. The survey was administered to a panel of respondents maintained by a survey research firm. Observations are weighted to reflected the demographic, economic, and geographic characteristics of the US population. See the original paper for more details.

  4. Has anyone verified that the olympic team is visiting the white house early next week, because that is the assumption Im working on, although it would be hilarious if Gabby had actually called the first lady a cunt.

  5. Well, you have to consider Glenn Beck’s minions often self-descibe as Libertarian, which they are not. It’s like those “Anarchist” rioters that support communist policies. Their not anarchist. As far as food safety goes, maybe their watching too much Gordon Ramsay. What do we pay those health inspecters for? I’m sure some stuff gets overplayed for the camera, but some of those places are disgusting. Makes you want to demand to do a kitchen walk through at restaurants before you order anything. A lot of his shows are in the U.K. too who are like the regulation Taliban.

    1. From what I remember about my restaurant days many years ago, the health inspectors call ahead.

      1. Yeah, I recall that as well from my days as a line cook centuries ago, but some of the grime in those places on his show looks like it had been accumulating for years. It was springing forth life.

    2. Check out the movie “A Private Function”. It has a very memorably food inspector character in it.

      It’s a Maggie Smith comedy set in post-war Britain and the plot line is based on meat rationing and meat inspections in like 1948 or so.

  6. I hear that Bill Maher guy is a libertarian.

    1. He was when during that 5 minutes when it was in vogue.

      1. He’s only libertarian when it’s time to smoke dope or bang a hooker. Then it’s back to the nanny state.

    2. I (unfortunately) caught about the first three minutes of Maher’s latest monologue this morning on TV. I turned the channel, ’cause it SUCKED!

  7. Constitutional amendment asserting self ownership. EVERY FUCKING PROBLEM WITH GOVERNMENT GOES AWAY.

    1. That’s a great way to piss off both Teams, califernian. Just tell ’em you’re an individualist, and watch ’em squirm.

    2. You’ll still have unfair, over-taxation though.

      You still have foreign policy problems and Police-state problems. F.D.R. also knew that governments can’t collectively bargain well with unions.

      Austrians Economists make the best Libertarians, imo.

  8. I think the reason people have so much sympathy for food regul’n is that so much of it is prepared (like most things these days) out of their sight. They don’t realize certain choices as significant trade-offs, and they think that it’s too easy for someone cheapening food by in effect poisoning (or taking a chance on poisoning) it to get away with doing so because nobody will realize it’s happening, therefore they must be prevented from doing so by being kept far away from the opp’ty to do so. It’s very much like child molestation panics or overvigilance.

    1. I think it also has to do with lipophobia “the fear of fats in foods”. Such fears create diseases such as anorexia and bulimia to hold a “thin and healthy” image due to social peer pressure. Both of those diseases are more detrimental since they both involve starvation.

  9. Also, paradoxically, the success of the food business probably leads to a subtle underestimation of the degree to which it’s regulated. There’s food being sold all over the place; it must not be policed very highly or there’d be fewer people in the business y it’d be less available.

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  19. The GMO thing is, in my experience, where the majority of self-described paleo food libertarians become statists. Next comes CAFO. And then there’s the less libertarian paleo-ish who think that regulating sugar is the solution. If only the right regulations were employed, blah blah blah.

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