A Race to Where Now?

Warren "Coyote" Meyer brought to my attention this AP report:

The Bush administration said Tuesday it will fight to keep meatpackers from testing all their animals for mad cow disease.

The Agriculture Department tests fewer than 1 percent of slaughtered cows for the disease, which can be fatal to humans who eat tainted beef. A beef producer in the western state of Kansas, Creekstone Farms Premium Beef, wants to test all of its cows.

Larger meat companies feared that move because, if Creekstone should test its meat and advertised it as safe, they might have to perform the expensive tests on their larger herds as well.

Pretend you're not a libertarian. What's wrong with this picture?

Answer: This never happens. Because producers, if they compete at all, compete only on price--not on things like quality, safety, and reliability--unregulated capitalism is a race to the bottom in which every corner is cut in the tireless pursuit of profit. The surreal race to the top which Creekstone's competitors predict is a phenomenon entirely foreign to market economies.

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Zombie myths of the market

You can't kill them. I saw a discussion following up on this very news item you mention in one of the social news sites in which one of the commenters trotted out the very myth that you're ridiculing and then got vigorously upmodded.

However, anti-capitalism is unfalsifiable. No matter what happens, the anti-capitalist crowd has collected such a vast library of spin that any event can be used to smear capitalism. In this case, someone could argue that the risk of Mad Cow is so small that the capitalist is pandering to the idiocy of the customer. Or, alternatively, someone could argue that this is yet more proof that Bushitler is evil, Capitalist AmeriKKKa is imploding, and this is yet more proof of the evils of KKKapitali$m (with "capitalism" defined in whatever way makes the statement true).

A more realistic response

That leftists might give is that the smaller meat producer is not in fact a capitalist. Capitalists, as we all know, own very large multinational corporations. They made vast profits, sit in large skyscrapers smoking cigars, and wear tophats. Many, even have monacles.

Thus, the large meat producers who test only a few of their animals, are the capitalists and they are the ones who are making an inferior product. The small producer is an honest prol, doing his best to give the best. He is not working for his own self interest and profit, but because he likes mucking about in cow shit all day. It's rustic.

They would also add, closer to the point, that the large meat producers are probably exerting some kind of influence over government, or at least that government, for one reason or another, is biased towards the larger firms. This, in the leftist's eyes, is not a problem with governments that should prompt a reduction in government power so that they cannot interefere as they plan, but a problem with business and capitalism.

I find that the second

I find that the second rationalization that Cynical brings up is one where I find I can usually convince leftwing type people to go for a little minimization of government.

You can usually say something like "sure, maybe the big business guys are evil, but can you imagine the difficulty of crafting legislation that only restricts the evil ones and not the good small guys? Plus, half the time the really evil Republicans control the government! Let's try and restrict the power of Republicans to screw things up."

It does happen

It happens a lot on more expensive refined goods - it's one big driver for feature creep. How many lives does the 6th airbag in a car save in any given year?

It's less prevalent in things that are established commodities, and "Meat!" is about as close to that as you can get. However, the recent craze for buzzword-compliant food (sustainable, fair, organic, etc.) makes it reasonable to believe that a sticker that says "tested BSE-free" could help compete against non-inspected cow parts.

The fallacy is that competition is bad. If there's a race to the top OR to the bottom, or to variety, or to anywhere else, it's still a race to somewhere consumers want to go, and it makes the world a better place.