Dennis Hackethal’s Blog

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Published · 3-minute read

Food Safety without Government

The government currently regulates the production and serving of food by setting minimum quality standards and performing unannounced inspections of restaurants and food-preparation sites. Many people think that the safety of our food couldn’t be ensured without the government. They are mistaken.

If there were no government, people wouldn’t stop caring about food safety. They still wouldn’t want to eat food that is dirty or gets them sick. Not knowing which food vendors they can trust would be a problem they would want to solve.

In recognition of this problem, food vendors would want to find a way to assure their customers that their food is safe to eat. After all, this assurance leads to greater revenues.

This mutual need of both food vendors and consumers presents a market opportunity for a third party: private food inspectors. Restaurants could hire them to inspect their food and kitchens to receive a stamp of approval on, say, the food inspectors’ websites. Consumers could then avoid restaurants that don’t have such a stamp of approval and go to those that do.

Problem solved.

Ah, you say, but since both restaurants and food inspectors are motivated by money, food inspectors just want to get paid – they don’t care about whether food is actually safe to eat. So they could easily be bribed by restaurant owners to get a good rating either way.

Private food inspectors could be bribed, yes, but so could government inspectors. The question is which system has a better ability to correct that error and why. There’s a saying in libertarian circles that criticisms of libertarian ideas are really descriptions of the status quo – this case is no different.

One of the mechanisms by which such corruption can be corrected is competition: liars and fraudsters have a way of getting caught sooner or later. If a restaurant with good ratings kept making customers sick, that would reflect poorly on both the restaurant and the food inspector. Better competitors would take their place, and consumers would know to avoid both. In addition, their competitors would have an incentive to discover fraud in their industry to stand out among their peers.

If the bribed inspector is from the government, however, the bar for correcting the mistake, though not impossibly high, is much higher. Food regulation as an institution is monopolized by the government – in other words, there are no competitors. Certain government employees may get fired if the quality is low enough or if they are found to be corrupt, but, barring larger-scale policy changes, which are harder to effect, the institution as a whole will remain. Change in politics is hard – it requires devotion, effort, and votes from enough people so that the desired change is possible, maybe, once every election cycle – ie every few years at most. The market, on the other hand, lets you freely cast micro votes every day with your wallet, and it lets you avoid services you do not want at any time. These frequent micro votes are another error-correction mechanism the free market provides that the government does not.

Since customers are unable to refuse to pay for government ‘services’, the institution of government food regulation has a guaranteed source of income. Thus another error-correction mechanism, namely bankruptcy, is thwarted. As a result, the government is not nearly as incentivized to improve the quality of their ‘services’. Private food inspectors, on the other hand, do not have the luxury of having a guaranteed income.

In short, government corruption is harder to correct than free-market corruption.

This phenomenon is a special case of the general rule that government errors are harder to correct than free-market ones. Even though, in the short term, the government can ‘solve’ certain problems through sheer force, and even though the free market is not guaranteed to solve any particular problem on any given day, the free market does outperform the government in the long run because it has superior methods of error correction. The government has an incentive to retain the status quo and receive money with as little effort as possible – the free market, on the other hand, has an incentive to innovate and satisfy consumers.

This Popperian focus on error correction (after philosopher Karl Popper) also brings us to the mistake of forcing people to pay for services they do not wish to purchase. In this case, it is wrong to force someone to pay for food safety, especially (but not only) if that is not a priority of his. We may think that he is mistaken not to care about food safety – I would certainly think so – but we could be wrong about that, too, and he could be right. Or maybe there could be a restaurant that finds a new, superior way of making food that doesn’t meet regulations because it is advanced and the regulations are out of date. Who would be able to update their requirements faster, government bureaucracy or private food inspectors? Government regulation leaves little room for the correction of these errors, whereas the free market leaves plenty.

A Popperian evaluation of government vs the free market does not ask which is better at guaranteeing certain outcomes – which is impossible anyway. It instead asks which system is better at correcting mistakes, as they will both invariably make mistakes.

Like clockwork, some will point to either monopolies or crony capitalism as the allegedly inescapable flaws of a free market. In both cases, I refer them to the libertarian saying referenced above.

In short, there’s no reason to think that food wouldn’t be safe to eat in a free society. That is, in fact, a ridiculous claim. On the contrary, food would generally be safer to eat.

If you are interested in learning how other industries, eg dispute resolution and infrastructure, would work in a free society, check the libertarian FAQ.


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