To a consumer of libertarian bloggage, the observation of the government getting something wrong would be a betrayal of bland banality. But New York City’s foie gras ban is not just wrong, it is a case study in the ecosystem of government wrongness.

The most obvious is that the ban had the effect of getting more people to eat it. This is what always happens with bans like this. If health-advancement is their goal, and cause makes effect, they should make war on kale. This is the law of unintended consequences. Like Hayek said about Progressive economics: “if they were not economically illiterate, they would not be progressives,” If they repeated processes that worked, they would not be statists, and would not be attacking foie gras.

Another lesson: that the law was passed overwhelmingly says a lot about the political ecosystem. It was a no-brainer because it’s a non-issue. If they wanted to save geese from pain, they might have simply asked the foie gras farmers, who would tell them about the humane alternatives. But this is not about the feeding of geese, it’s about the feeding of their base. If they went after the inhumane farm techniques that create cheap meat, they’d be in a donnybrook. Successful politicians don’t start fights they can’t win, so they go for the low hanging fruit. Which is how our big problems disappear before things like the feeding feelings of geese.

The triviality is the point: in a politically developed system, low-hanging fruit gets less common, and also more trivial. Most of our problems are systemic, most political solution spaces are taken up by hard-fighting incumbents. Incumbent, because they are successful political fighters. It’s hard for the system players to address the long-standing problems they create, like Board of education failures for a half-century, untenable public transport (etc.) It’s hard to build resumes they can tout, if political discussions are confined to those problems they control (by claiming sole solution-authority over). So, political oxygen fuels the state of goose satiation. This evolution winds up with San Francisco, with ever-advancing entrepreneurial political activity on, say, the health menace of plastic drinking straws) contrasted with a typhus outbreak that would make India blush. Normally, attending rarified problems would follow attending basic ones.

Due diligence: People assume that a government going through the effort of legislation, one that would affect millions of dollars worth of business, would do some homework beforehand. Not so. “Our” foie gras farmers don’t force-feed geese as the Frenchies do. No avian physiology experts were asked to testify on the nature of the nervous systems of geese, which also makes “torture” a rather torturous concept. This is the same ignorance, plus status quo inertia that gave us three quarters of a century of marijuana prohibition, with human carceral wreckage galore in its wake.

Concentrated benefits, diffuse costs: someone who spends their time fretting over geese must be much fretted. The vast majority of people don’t care. They will not care enough to resist the ban either. For a politician, they get publicity, pad their “do stuff” resumes, while feeding their supporters (the most incorrigible pain-in-the-ass ones, you’ve got to suspect). They do this by getting everyone to pay a tiny bit. And by bullying people who, by definition of being attacked by low-hanging political fruit pickers, are politically defenseless. Indeed, the foie gras industry’s defense doesn’t feature every adult’s right to eat what they will (that ship has sailed in America already), it features the “disadvantaged farm-workers” put out of their meager work by the ban. This phenomenon of concentrated benefits, with diffuse costs, explains gross inefficiencies in matters ranging from inter-coastal shipping (see: the Jones Act) to the price of sugar. Any economist will tell you: cost waste adds up. Enough cost waste brings less wealth, less wealth eventually makes for poverty.

All that, and foie gras is delicious. Try it with a Sauternes for a rare treat. It will make you happy, and less liable to project your general life-displeasure onto goose-issues. If you don’t like it, don’t eat it. Go find an important problem to dedicate your energies to solving.

Eugene Darden Nicholas

About Eugene Darden Nicholas

Eugene Darden (Ed) Nicholas is from Flushing Queens, where he grew up sheltered from the hard world, learning the true things after graduating college and becoming a paramedic in Harlem. School continues to inform and entertain in all its true, Shakespearean glory. It's a lot of fun, really. In that career, dozens of people walk the earth now who would not be otherwise. (The number depends on how literally or figuratively you choose to add). He added a beloved wife to his little family, which is healthy. He is also well blessed in friends and colleagues.


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