Where Are All the "Food Libertarians"?

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


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.

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.