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Executive Committee Of The Bourgeoisie, Again

In theory, the government is supposed to protect citizens against corporations running wild in the free market. In practice, government seems to just as often protect corporations against citizens acting in the free market. Case in point: an impending ban on labeling milk as artificial-hormone-free in Pennsylvania and possibly several other states:

As of Jan. 1, Pennsylvania is banning labels on milk and dairy products that say it comes from cows that haven't been treated with artificial bovine growth hormone, which is sometimes known as rBGH or rBST. State officials say the labels are confusing and impossible to verify.

... "It confuses them," [PA agriculture secretary Dennis Wolff] said. "It seems to imply there is a safe, nonsafe dimension."

A former dairy farmer, Mr. Wolff said he decided to look into the issue after he received calls from farmers complaining that they were being forced to stop using bovine growth hormone if they wanted to continue selling their milk to certain dairies. He also said his office had received many calls from confused consumers.

Mr. Wolff's office could not provide surveys or research showing that consumers were confused by the issue, and was unable to come up with even one name of a consumer who had complained.

Aww, poor companies being forced to keep up with consumer demand -- don't worry, Comrade Dennis will fix the production quotas for you. Hey Mr. Wolff, I figured out an innovative scientific test to verify whether milk comes from cows treated with hormones: go inspect the farming operation. Dairy farms are pretty big, so it shouldn't be too hard to find them and go have a look around.

In addition to the regulatory capture issue, this story pushes another one of my buttons: Wolff's rationale assumes that the only legitimate reason to choose one product over another is the physical characteristics of the item on the shelf. So if there are no hormones in the milk itself, it's wrong to distinguish between hormone-treated and non-hormone-treated milk -- and indeed, consumers must be prevented from making that distinction. But that is a false way of looking at consumer choice. When you buy something, the effect is to support everything that happens along the production chain in order to bring you that product. And any physical/causal effect of an action may legitimately be taken into account in deciding whether to do that action. So even if Wolff is right that milk from hormone-treated and non-hormone-treated cows is identical down to the molecular level, I would still want to buy milk from hormone-free cows because of the effects of the hormone treatment on the cows.


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