The Strange Paradox of Libertarianism

Reading the section in Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma about Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm is making me have some thoughts on libertarianism. Polyface Farm is an exemplary model of alternative agriculture—alternative to the mainstream military-industrial model, that is. Instead of reducing everything to machine-manageable monocultures, Salatin’s farm is run on the basis of the fairly simple idea that letting plants and animals act like themselves is the best way of creating healthy, sustainable food. Instead of getting cows to eat corn while standing ankle deep in their own shit, for example, let them eat grass and roam around the fields a little bit while they’re at it, so that they and the grassland both work together as key parts of a complete ecosystem. The ins and outs of how Salatin applies this principle to grow tons and tons of food with virtually no inputs aside from chicken feed, all while improving the health of his land, is covered in detail in Pollan’s book. Naturally, he does a much better job of explaining it than I would.

No, the problem I have with Salatin’s views on agriculture have nothing to do with the agriculture itself, but rather on the way he sees libertarianism as the solution to the global deck of cards that is the modern industrial food system. Like a lot of rural types, Salatin’s libertarianism comes from his personal experiences and the accumulated wisdom of his rural heritage. On the personal experience side of the coin, his particular frustrations have arisen from those points where the implementation of his agricultural principles has come up against government regulations that are designed to regulate gigantic corporate feedlots rather than small, decentralized farming communities. His desire to process and sell his own beef, to cite only one example, has been kaiboshed by the regulations regarding the slaughter of food animals. Because his agricultural model works so well, every time he comes up against a regulation that prevents him from implementing it as fully as he would like, he understandably becomes somewhat more soured on the idea of centralized government—the government, it seems to him, is not only complicit in the perpetuation of the military-industrial approach to agriculture, but it is also one of the major forces impeding small farmers’ attempts to put into practice alternatives that are more sustainable, less polluting, less dependent on fossil fuels, more environmentally friendly, and more delicious than the mainstream approach.

To the maximum extent possible, Salatin and his family have opted out of the mainstream approach. From an agricultural perspective, they hardly have any reliance on external inputs like seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, and from a personal perspective, a huge proportion of the food they consume on the farm, not to mention the buildings and machinery, are produced or manufactured right there on their property. This ideal of self-sufficiency is a cornerstone of libertarianism, and it’s no surprise that rural types, who have a firsthand perspective on the production of sustenance from the land, are more inclined to libertarianism. (A person from the city might have a harder time imagining being self-sufficient, if they’ve spent years and years picking up plastic-wrapped chicken breasts from the local Walmart Supercentre.)

When questioned by Pollan about the possibility of this small, local, polyculture-based farming system eventually overtaking the military-industrial approach, he indicates his belief that “all we need to do is empower individuals with the right philosophy and the right information to opt out en masse”—dispensing with the government altogether, I suppose, much like his own family has done to the maximum extent possible. In fact, he believes that the process of mass opt-outs has already begun, as evidenced by things like the increase in the number of farmer’s markets, the rise of metropolitan buying clubs, and the growth in popularity of “artisanal” approaches to production among, say, readers of Mother Earth News. What he seems to forget is that the ideals embodied in the Whole Earth Catalogue in the sixties—a similar attempt at opting out of the  military-industrial mainstream—had as good a chance of ensnaring the mainstream of America then, and look how that turned out. (In fact, read The Omnivore’s Dilemma to see how that turned out.) At least back then, the movement had a convincing veneer of soul—farmers markets are also increasing in popularity here in Vancouver, but it probably has more to do with people opting in to our thriving economy of guilt-free, greenest-city-in-the-worldTM goods than it does with a popular desire for a new form of social and economic organization. Indeed, this is the city where the ex-president of Happy Planet juices—”a company with soul”—went on to become God’s gift to Canada’s most gentrification-happy property developers.

In Salatin’s case, though, it appears that one of the major problems with his kind of libertarianism is that by opting out to such a degree, he apparently ran the risk of losing touch with the realities of the rest of the world. It’s only because he has opted out so vehemently, in other words, that he can take this perspective on the future of agriculture. (“There were plenty of books in the [Salatins’s] house,” Pollan writes, “but, aside from the Staunton daily newspaper, which devoted more space to local car crashes than the war in Iraq, little media (and no television) penetrated the Salatin household.”) From the perspective of someone living in the city, such as myself, it’s hard to see Salatin’s viewpoint as anything other than hopelessly utopian—especially as more and more people flock to cities all over the world. By opting out to such a degre, Salatin is privy almost exclusively to the negative aspects of government—the overbearing regulations, the complicity with the industrial economy, the centralization—or, at least, the aspects of government that he is privy to are grossly out of proportion.

I would never try to argue that the government’s regulatory systems are perfect, or even that they’re significantly better than mediocre, but I do see these regulations as one of the few things that are (barely) keeping the industrial system from burgeoning right out of control. The regulations may inhibit some of Salatin’s activities, because of their narrow scope or other flaws, but they also regulate the activities of a lot of massive organizations, much more massive than his, that have the potential to cause a great deal more harm than they’re already causing. Think about what BP, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and ChevronTexaco want to do in the National Arctic Wildlife Refuge, for instance, but can’t because of government regulations.

This is what leads me to believe that rural-style libertarianism is essentially a selfish political philosophy. It’s a philosophy characterized by willing ignorance. You don’t like what goes on in the cities and the industries, so you just choose to ignore it altogether, to leave it out of the equation when you’re thinking about how to make things better.

What strikes me as particularly bizarre about someone like Salatin disparaging the role of government in inhibiting his freedoms is that the same rhetoric is routinely proffered by people like Charles and David Koch. When he ran for vice-president of the Libertarian Party in 1980, David Koch ran on a platform of intense deregulation, including the outright elimination of regulatory bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, the Federal Trade Commission, and the National Labour Relations Board (not to mention the public school system—the Salatins have opted out of that too). The reasons for this aren’t difficult to figure out—if companies like Koch Industries and Cargill don’t have to worry about environmental, health, labour, or trade regulations, then they can make a lot more money by cutting wages, abrogating decent working conditions, dumping waste into creeks, drilling for oil in Canyonlands National Park, doing away with sanitation measures and safety equipment, firing people indiscriminately, lying to consumers about what’s in their products, and so on. These are all things that companies want to do right now, and by and large the only thing stopping them is government regulations. It’s certainly not scruples and good conscience. As John Ralston Saul observes in The Collapse of Globalism, it has been shown time and again since the beginning of the industrial revolution that “market leaders, if left to themselves, would, on average, act badly,” largely because market leaders tend to prioritize money making over everything else.

This view, at least in relation to the hippie generation, is shared by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter in The Rebel Sell:

The hippie counterculture shared many of the individualistic and libertarian ideas that have always made neoliberalism and free-market ideology such a powerful force on the right wing of the American political spectrum.

Aspects of Heath and Potter’s book are compromised by their tendency to overgeneralize and equivocate, but I do think that Salatin’s case serves as an apt illustration of their thesis that people tend to get caught up in utopian ideas about social reformation to such a degree that they overlook, even as temporary measures, shorter-term, practical reforms that can be implemented right away to make things better than they are now. “After the holocaust,” argue Heath and Potter,

the left began to distrust many of the basic building blocks of social organization, such as social norms, . . . laws and bureaucratic forms of organization . . . . As a result, the left has found itself mired in insuperable collective action problems, and unwilling to use some of the basic organizational methods that all human beings must employ in order to overcome these difficulties. The preference for individual consumer activism in response to environmental degredation, rather than state regulation of externalities, provides the most clear-cut example.

Whereas Salatin’s model of agriculture is right on—there’s no question about that—his belief that it’s going to spontaneously catch on and eventually overtake industrial agriculture is hopelessly naive. And the salient point here is that by opting out of mainstream society, he has entitled himself to take this viewpoint. He’s like Heath and Potter’s survivalist living on a compound in Montana with a generator and a shotgun—he may have it figured out for himself, but his political philosophy really only extends to the boundaries of his property. This is the paradox of libertarianism: Salatin’s approach to ecological sustainability in agriculture is spot on, yet he ends up supporting policies—like deregulation—that have the potential to destroy the very thing he’s fighting so hard to protect. A system of smart and effective regulations has the potential to do vastly more good right now than Salatin’s approach does, and if an agricultural utopia comes next, then that’s a bonus.

(Disclaimer: Everything I’ve said about Salatin is based on Pollan’s book, and I recognize that the book may not be a complete characterization of Salatin’s philosophy. Again, I’m not criticizing Salatin’s farming practices, just his political philosophy.)


One response to “The Strange Paradox of Libertarianism

  1. B Channing Hillway, PhD

    The trick now is to build a bridge between Salatin’s excellent ideas and the real world. People drive 200-300 miles to get his chickens on the appointed date, and some like to cut off the heads themselves. These are not folks living in areas of poverty in LA, Chicago, or New Jersey. You’re looking at $20-30 per roaster, is my guess. There is a guy on U-Tube who is growing a million pounds of food each year on three acres. It’s set up like an artificial wetland, carefully engineered, with a big tank of tilapia — the main fertilizer cost is fish food — and the water runs through various stages of filtration that is mainly sand and small gravel as the growing medium for lettuce, parsley, tomatoes, and whatever, the water running through a long downhill that is barely noticeable. One pump powers the entire operation, in Wisconsin, I believe, in a complex of connected greenhouses, and it runs 24-7-365, generating its own heat. It could be put on top of a building with a three-acre roof just about anywhere. Tilapia is a good choice for a farmed fish and, depending on the choice of food, doesn’t become a nutritional wasteland like farmed salmon which has about as much omega-3 as a feed lot steer. He, like, Salatin, will drive Monsanto crazy. No need of pesticides or petroleum-based fertilizers. The fish, the sun, and the processes of nature do the trick. Regarding the Libertarian aspect, the main problem is that Monsanto and the pharmaceutical companies have highjacked the FDA, which will try to regulate such operations out of existence, for the sake of public safety, since they do not use standard procedures that can be monitored, blah, blah, blah. That makes a case of Libertarianism. However, most Americans live in the suburbs or in urban areas and need high quality, low-cost nutrition. The math has been done, by the way, and converting all of the corn and soy to Polyface Farm type operations would generate plenty of animal protein, put a lot more people to work, and the planet would be much healthier.

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