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Monday, March 23, 2015

Food Freedom and the Science of Association

"Food freedom" shows the importance of free association to community

“Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small… In democratic countries the science of association is the mother science; the progress of all the others depends on the progress of that one.”
— Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Lemonade stand operators, farmer’s market foodies, and amateur bakers everywhere — or at least in Wyoming — rejoice! A recently signed law, the Wyoming Food Freedom Act, has done away with onerous regulations on local food sales by exempting certain sales from government inspection, licensing, and certification. Specifically, the change applies to sales between a producer and an “informed end consumer” (defined as a final buyer who is aware that the product has not been inspected, licensed, or certified).

Life just became easier — and tastier — for Wyoming’s residents.

The foremost benefit of legalizing small food sales is ending the cruel absurdity of policemen shutting down children’s lemonade stands and PTA bake sales. It also makes it easier to bring food to market, which benefits both producers and consumers. According to Sen. Dan Dockstader, one of the bill’s supporters, selling home-grown food became “a serious source of secondary income” for many state residents since the 2008 recession. As for consumers, this law will make it easier and cheaper to buy fresh food.

Beyond that, state regulations controlling the buying, selling, and consumption of food include some egregious affronts to human dignity. Food is not just indispensable for life — for many people it is also a means of discovering identity and purpose. Regulations that interfere with people’s ability to decide for themselves what to eat, what to grow, and how to practice their identity deserve skepticism at best.

There is still another reason to cheer for “food freedom”: it can strengthen communities. Abolishing unnecessary regulations on food allows neighbors to trade directly with one another and to develop relationships with local food growers, whether professional or amateur. Freed food can also strengthen social capital, and in places where producing your own food has been tradition since time immemorial, freed food can enable people to grow closer to their hometown culture. This is one way that markets and trade can actually enhance culture and community, as well as promoting profitable enterprises.

Though “community” is usually not a concept associated with libertarianism — you tend to find it more often in conservative and progressive thought — it is in fact essential to a free society. The food freedom movement provide an excellent opportunity for libertarians to reach out to and make common cause in defense of community with both conservatives and progressives.

Community is appealing to both the left and the right in part because it is an inherently group-oriented idea, and both conservatism and progressivism tend to be focused on collectives and collective action.

One reason conservatives appreciate community is for its role in “moral policing.” William Lind explains, “Community is a highly important conservative value because it is through community expectations and pressures that traditional morals are best upheld.” But when traditional morals are threatened by changes inside or outside the community, state action all too frequently becomes the means to “protect” community values from social evolution, as we see in bans on drugs and gay marriage.

As for progressivism, its “we’re all in this together” ethos and emphasis on collective responsibilities are often and easily used to justify harmful and coercive policies — confiscatory taxes, labor controls, restrictions on “offensive” speech, etc. — that trample on individuals’ rights.

Given that intellectual landscape, it is no mystery why libertarians are skeptical of appeals to community in political contexts. But, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted in Democracy in America, “The political associations that exist in the United States form only a detail in the midst of the immense picture that the sum of associations presents there.”

A community, in its simplest meaning, is people who share a common identity or goal and the network of associations between them. People are bound together through all the numerous voluntary and familial relationships and associations they share. Community refers both to these shared identities and social bonds, as well as to the idea that such associations matter and ought to be nurtured.

In other words, “community” can be another term for civil society. A free society, of course, will be one in which most of our associations are voluntary, either through trade or through nonmarket associations. Cultivating understanding and respect for these institutions is therefore of the utmost importance for those who seek social progress and a freer society.

De Tocqueville recognized this when he wrote, “The morality and intelligence of a democratic people would risk no fewer dangers than its business and its industry if the government came to take the place of associations everywhere.” Put differently, when states flourish, community withers.

So how can libertarians engage conservatives and progressives to demonstrate that we also value community? In the political context, the issue of food freedom brings us all to the table. Though they may reach this conclusion in different ways, conservatives, progressives, and libertarians are in agreement that freed food (and the voluntary cooperation it nurtures) is a good thing. It is up to us to demonstrate that more freedom, not more control, is the path to pluralism, decentralization, and a stronger and richer social fabric composed of vibrant associations. Exploring these shared desires will help develop trust and goodwill between members of these groups.

There is a fundamental philosophical divide that cuts across libertarianism, conservatism, and progressivism: the divide between those who believe human flourishing is best reached through centralized, coercive means, and those who believe it is best achieved through decentralized, voluntary means. In order to achieve kind of society we want, we must cultivate goodwill with those who share our vision of communities organized from the bottom up through voluntary association. Libertarians would do well to emphasize this in their interactions with like-minded conservatives and progressives.

Food and community go together like peanut butter and jelly. Libertarians, conservatives, and progressives may not typically go together as well, but with a shared appreciation for freed food and the importance of social networks, there’s promise for productive, positive collaboration. After all, breaking bread is a time-honored way to build bridges, strengthen bonds, and heal rifts.

  • William Smith is a Program Development Associate at FEE, crafting engaging seminars for our growing young audience.