Tuesday, March 15, 2005

A Successful Government Program

The results are apparently in on Los Angeles' restaurant-grading system:

A recently released study found that the number of people hospitalized around the county for food-borne illnesses declined 13 percent since the county forced eateries to display their health inspection grades prominently.
It's important to note that this thirteen-percent decline is in hospitalizations; most victims of food poisoning are not hospitalized, and many never seek medical treatment of any kind.

Government inspection of restaurants is a good example of why hardline libertarian dogma is wrongheaded. A food business could improve its bottom line by refusing to replace a faulty refrigeration system, by using food products that are past their "use by" date, or by cutting corners on janitorial staff and cleaning supplies. All other things being equal, a business that behaves in this way has an unfair advantage over a business that obeys the law. Thus, the law should be enforced for the benefit of the honest business, as well as for the safety of consumers.

"But private companies can do these inspections on a contract basis!" cry the libertarians. "The government shouldn't be involved. Just post the results and let consumers make up their minds where to eat!" Of course, the government is involved, regardless; it requires the inspections, and requires that the results be posted, and it also provides a legal framework for the enforcement of contracts between private businesses (shall we have privatized courts, too?). Another virtue of having government inspections is that the results are standardized: you can presume that a grade of "A" means the same thing, no matter which restaurant you visit. Otherwise, the concerned consumer is forced to assess the capabilities and methodologies of several inspection firms.

According to libertarians, government regulatory bodies are prone to abuse and dishonesty; someone at a public-health agency, for instance, could decide to make an example of a particular business; they could also demand or accept bribes. But private firms can do precisely the same things. The libertarian idea is that consumers will find a trusted private inspector on the basis of a reputation garnered over time; obviously, then, your success as a private inspector depends on convincing consumers that you have the highest standards around, and there are plenty of unethical ways of doing this, from bribery to coercion to doctoring lab results.

The funny thing is, libertarians would make this type of deceit incredibly easy, because they assume - for no reason at all - that private enterprise is basically good, and that the market will winnow out anyone who isn't. Unless, of course, they want the government to inspect inspectors, and make sure they have adequate expertise and technology?

Libertarian thought reminds me of the epicycles that were invented to make the observed motions of the planets agree with the Aristotelian dogma that heavenly bodies must move at uniform speed, in perfect circles. So long as they can imagine a scenario in which privatization would work - no matter how little connection it has to reality - the system triumphs.


Aquaria said...


Yeah, who will make sure the private companies doing these inspections don't make bribes? The private police forces and court system?

Privatization is a joke. We all know this. Business doesn't run any more efficiently than the government. They're no more or less corrupt, either. For the record, non-union workers aren't anymore productive than union workers (if even ONE study proved it, we'd never hear the end of it).

But a lot of people want to make sure we think otherwise. As always, the question is: Who benefits from it? The answer always reveals all.

Aquaria said...

Er, make was supposed to be take. Brain damage from dealing with Theri and NTodd most of today at my blog...

Cervantes said...

This is an excellent example of the way in which orthodox economics, and the libertarian social philosophy which depends on it, is a structure erected on false assumptions.

In this case, the false assumption is the requirement of "perfect information." Without government intervention to inspect restaurants, consumers would have no way of knowing what was going on in the kitchen and whether the meal they were purchasing was safe. But economic theory requires that they have that information in order for the market to function properly.

Economics is a vast edifice of bullshit erected on a foundation of sand. It is like the ptolemaic system. We can make the solar system go around the earth by adding cycles and epicycles, but after a while it becomes ridiculously unwieldy. Then comes the dawn: the planets go around the sun.

There is no such thing as a "free market," the very idea is fictitious. Markets are social constructions. In complex societies, they can only exist because of massive and ongoing government intervention. The question is on whose behalf government intervenes, and who gets the loot in the end, not whether the market is "free."

I may expand on this on my own blog soon.

Thers said...

There are many, many problems with libertarianism, especially the version of it most often encountered on the internet. To sort of play off what cervantes says, but in the direction of social philosophy, libertarians rely on a pretty unconvinicng, simplistic concept of subjectivity. That is, they presume that all individuals perceive the world identically, according to their understanding of the "market," and then act accordingly. To take the restaurant example, the assumption would be that the rise of say McDonald's is to do with millions of people all consciously deciding that McDonald's offers a superior product and that is why they eat there in full knowledge of the food's health risks. Whatever truth there is in that, the argument ignores the effects of advertising, especially on kids, which leads people to make unhealthy choices against their own best interests. In other words, the libertarian concept of the individual's subjectivity is a fantasy.

robin andrea said...

"It's important to note that this thirteen-percent decline is in hospitalizations; most victims of food poisoning are not hospitalized, and many never seek medical treatment of any kind."

fight that, libertarians. and where are there any independent restaurant health ratings? haven't we seen various scary estimates of how much "stomach flu" or other GI complaints are food borne problems? indeed, how many ways other than ingestion are there to get pathogens into our stomachs?

dread pirate roberts

Anonymous said...

Certainly Libertarianism is not perfect, nor is any system. Look at the system as it is right now. You certainly can't defend it as perfect. I truly agree that the more Libertarian ideals adopted into the current system, the better off we would be. Do I think we should abolish all government? Of course not, and neither do other Libertarians. The County Health Department is doing a wonderful job, and that is where the empowerment belongs -- with local government. There is no reason for the federal government to oversee our local restaurants. All too often, the federal government has to poke its nose in where it doesn't belong, completely ignoring the 9th and 10th Amendments to the Constitution.