Ag Gag Laws Are Bad For Markets

One of the most common objections that libertarians and conservatives make to regulations is that we should “let markets decide” how safe a toy needs to be, or how dangerous a job should be, and so forth. In particular, you sometimes hear this with respect to the treatment of farm animals: if people want farm animals to be treated in a particular way, then the market will demand the efficient kind of animal treatment.* There is some sense to this, especially if you think that attempts to regulate animal welfare are likely to lead to unintended consequences. For example, it is often claimed that the closure of horse slaughterhouses due to regulatory opposition has lead to an increase in the abandonment and mistreatment of old horses.

But even in this most optimistic assessment of the free markets’ ability to regulate animal welfare it is crucial that markets have information about how animals are treated. This is why “ag gag” laws which are designed to prevent people from filming animal treatment in agriculture are bad for markets: information on how animals are treated is exactly what consumers need in order for the market to perform its function.

One such law in Idaho is being challenged in the courts. Here is how the Atlantic’s Andrew Cohen describes the fight:

The statute creates the crime of “interference with agricultural production” by punishing anyone who makes an unauthorized “audio or video recordings” of what transpires inside food processing facilities in Idaho with up to one year in prison. It is designed, as its lengthy legislative record suggests, to help Big Ag prevent the public dissemination of images of animal abuse or unsafe conditions. Images like those posted in April 2011 as part of an award-winning investigation into the state’s dairy industry by the Boise Weekly. Or the video of farm workers in Idaho kicking and stomping on cows that the Boise Weekly posted in October 2012. It was this investigative work that caused one concerned lawmaker to lament recently not the cruelty, or unclean food, but the injustice of these farm operators being “tried and convicted in the press or on YouTube.”

The need of information for consumers to make informed decisions often presents a tension between the negative impact of regulations that may stifle innovation or cause intended consequences, and the positive impact of informing consumers. In these cases it can be unclear what the best regulation is to help markets function efficiently. However, “ag gag” laws are not a case where this tension exists.

The key difference is that the videos of animals being mistreated are not the same thing as regulators requiring information disclosure, which despite what nanny staters say is not a neutral act of information provision. In the case of mandated information disclosure, the regulators necessarily are stating something in addition to the intended information: they are saying “this is important and serious information that consumers need to know”. In some cases this statement is justified, and the information helps consumers make good decisions. But in others it is not justified, and the information that “this is a really important” is both inaccurate and the strongest signal sent by the regulation. Case in point is the mandated labeling of GMOs.

While laws that mandate disclosure of animal treatment might be subject to a debate about the costs and benefits of such mandates, this is really not the case with “ag gag” laws. This is law is not neutral about the provision of information, but rather the law is explicitly helping to hide this information from consumers.

Those who thinks markets can and should sufficiently regulate animal welfare need to understand that this cannot work if the government is working to actively aid in the concealment of information. The very least the government can do is not help prevent people from trying to discover this information and report it to consumers.

*I happen to believe animals are worthy of utilitarian consideration on their own, and so the market outcome provides an inefficiently  low consideration of animal treatment. But the argument in this piece applies even if you give animals zero utilitarian weight.

Source: Forbes Business

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