INSIGHTS: MANDATORY GMO LABELING ISN’T ABOUT PUTTING CONSUMERS FIRST
By Guest Columnist Daren Bakst:
Research Fellow on Agricultural Policy at The Heritage Foundation. Reprinted with permission.
Recently the Senate failed to pass legislation that would effectively mandate the labeling of genetically engineered food. That’s a good thing.
The Senate labeling bill that was voted out of the Senate Agriculture Committee prohibited states from imposing mandatory labeling requirements, while not creating any type of federal requirement. This is what the House bill that passed last year did as well.
Then, last week, a new version of the Senate bill was considered on the floor that was different from what was reported out of the Senate Agriculture Committee. It would have imposed a federal mandatory labeling requirement unless a forced “voluntary” requirement was met (70 percent of labeled food had to be voluntarily labeled within 2 years after the USDA developed regulations clarifying the process). In both instances, the federal government would have been forcing food companies to label whether food had been genetically engineered.
This entire legislative effort is being driven by Vermont, which passed a state labeling law that will go into effect this summer. Food companies are concerned they will have to start meeting the state’s labeling requirements and claim they will be forced to apply the Vermont standards to all of their products nationwide. While by no means suggesting it would be the easiest option, companies should instead consider ending sales to Vermont, and make this known right away so it can “wake up” in-state retailers and state officials about the harm the state is about to create.
What about consumer choice, though?
There are consumers who genuinely want to know about whether their food has been genetically engineered. That’s fair. However, for those individuals, what exactly are they gaining by having genetically engineered food labeled? There are already labels indicating whether food isn’t genetically engineered. Why isn’t this satisfactory?
The consumer choice argument is flimsy (even unrelated to the lack of scientific support) because it isn’t clear what information a consumer doesn’t have now to make an informed decision. For example, since some consumers want to buy only food that’s gluten-free, should any food product that isn’t gluten-free be labeled as non-gluten-free? Of course not, because consumers know that if it doesn’t say gluten-free, it probably isn’t. Silence does say something to consumers.
There’s also the pesky problem regarding the science: There’s no scientific justification for labeling.
Major scientific organizations from the World Health Organization to the National Academy of Science agree that genetically engineered foods for sale are safe. This rush to address labeling shouldn’t be a justification for developing extremely damaging policy that is inconsistent with science and could create serious harm for the development of bioengineered food.
Some consumers may want to mandate labeling despite the science, but compelling companies to disclose such information without any scientific basis would be inappropriate (and a gross abuse of governmental power) and very well could violate the First Amendment.
There are many well-meaning people who want genetically engineered food to be labeled. However, for some, it doesn’t appear to be about knowing whether food is genetically engineered. It’s really about using labels to scare and mislead, because on the surface and without proper context, genetic engineering sounds a bit disconcerting. They support labeling not due to consumer choice, but instead because they don’t want there to be genetically engineered food.
ON THE ECONOMY: ONE OF THESE THINGS
By John Dunham:
Managing Partner, John Dunham & Associates
One of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn’t belong. Can you tell which thing is not like the others, by the time I finish my song? So begins the classic song from Sesame Street, written by Joe Raposo, Jon Stone and Bruce Hart and actually used on the first episode of the show when Susan talks about the number 2.
I guess that President Obama never watched Sesame Street growing up, or at least never saw one of the 60 or so episodes that featured the song, for he seems to not understand that different things are – well different. In answering a question from students in Argentina, President Obama stated, So often in the past there has been a division between left and right, between capitalists and communists or socialists, and especially in the Americas, that’s been a big debate. He continued, Those are interesting intellectual arguments, but I think for your generation, you should be practical and just choose from what works. You don’t have to worry about whether it really fits into socialist theory or capitalist theory. You should just decide what works.
In all honesty, it appears as if the President was trying to say that you should never be dogmatic, and that good ideas can come from all sorts of places. This is something that we have often stated in these pages, suggesting that the dogmatic Keynesianism of the orthodox economic community has led to some horrific economic policies. As a student of Marxism, I for one believe that Kapital provides one of the best descriptions of the machinery of the capitalist economic system. But that does not mean that the forced appropriation of the means of production by Lenin, or Mao or Castro (or for that matter Hitler or the court in Northampton County Virginia that in 1654 made John Casor the first legally recognized slave in America) is something that should be subject to debate.
I would think that most of the people who make decisions about the economic undertakings of the country should know something about economic systems. They should at least read The Worldly Philosophers or another book about comparative economic systems so they know what they are talking about when they compare socialism to capitalism. First, and foremost, they should understand that no country operates under a pure economic structure. There is no truly capitalist country just as there is no truly socialist, feudal or kleptocratic system. In general, a system operating under capitalism is based on the private ownership of the means of production. By this economists mean that businesses and investors own machinery and factories, land rights are legally tied to individuals and people own their own labor. Government may be a benign presence or an overbearing one, but the key to capitalism is the right of ownership (particularly of one’s self).
Socialism differs from capitalism in that ownership is not individualized but controlled by society. While there is a theoretical underpinning of how a structure of this type is supposed to work, it is very difficult to actually determine who or what society is. Socialist economic systems can have a range of coordinating mechanisms based on public ownership, worker or consumer cooperatives and common ownership. Unfortunately, the need for such a coordinating mechanism generally leads to some sort of tyrannical structure, particularly in larger societies. Once individuals no longer ownthemselves there is a huge potential for savagery.
This is what the President likely does not understand. He, like many people who work in government, truly believe that regulation and taxation imply socialism. This is simply not the case; however, government, like any bureaucratic structure, feeds on its own power. The Founding Fathers understood that once a government becomes too powerful, then even under a capitalist system tyranny can easily ensue. This tyranny does not have to lead to a Cultural Revolution, or forced collectivism or concentration camps, but can also be felt through simple things, like licensing restrictions, smoking bans, or blue laws. In the end, one of these things is NOT like the other. Owning one’s own self is the most important human right. Just ask Dred Scott, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Simon Wiesenthal or Haing S. Ngor, and socialist economic systems preclude this possibility.
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