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Animals and the Market

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11/01/1997Michael Levin

The Free Market 15, no. 11 (November 1997)


For ages, man's right to exploit the living world—to use it for his purposes—went unquestioned. Trees were for lumber, crops for harvesting, animals for eating and skinning as well, of course, as for companionship. When not consumed directly, the products into which human labor transformed living things found their way to the market. Nothing seemed more, well, natural.

But man's free use of animals has lately come under fire. The most candid "animal liberationists" are entirely uncompromising. It is wrong to eat meat. Experiments on animals are an abomination that should be illegal, whatever the consequences. To dramatize their position, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have declared themselves opposed even to animal studies needed to cure AIDS. (For the Left, AIDS is another—pardon the expression—sacred cow.) PETA's charming slogan is "A dog is a rat is a boy."

However, most "animal rights" types know they won't convince anyone else of a view that, followed consistently, means the end of the human race. Hence they push their agenda softly and duplicitously, picking relatively easy, emotion-laden targets: overcrowding in "factory farms," destruction of the nesting sites, and esoteric research on cute dogs.

PETA commandos go a bit further when they throw paint at women in fur coats, hoping perhaps to focus resentment on the rich. (Trashing laboratories is left to fellow travelers at the Animal Liberation Front.)

The federal government, firmly in the hands of environmentalists, has complied with many of these demands, as have other governments under pressure from Washington. Currently the restrictions on the use of private animals, and the prerogatives given to animals over humans, are remarkable and sometimes appalling. Elaborate protocols on animal studies make much research prohibitively costly. The hunting of whales, the sale of ivory, and the sale of many animals used in medicines and aphrodisiacs have been banned internationally. Commercial tuna fishing may eventually go bankrupt because of rules against accidentally catching dolphins. One measure of consumer frustration is a black market in animals that runs into the billions of dollars.

Here at home the federal government has reintroduced wolves and pumas into inhabited areas, promising to pay farmers for second attacks on livestock. One free raid at farmers' expense—affirmative action for wolves. Several humans have already been killed by pumas, a cost that environmentalists dismiss as acceptable. In parts of India it is illegal to harm tigers, even though tiger attacks have resulted in hundreds of deaths. The Gawli and Korku peoples, native to the Vairat region north of Bombay, have been evicted from the tiger sanctuary there. Since the only fresh water in the area is in the preserve, tribesmen must risk fines and beatings to get some. Soldiers in Africa regularly shoot poachers, in effect treating the killing of elephants and rhinoceroses as homicide.

The economic arguments used to justify these measures are quite bogus. The worst, and most indicative of environmentalist motives, is that traffic in contraband animals is driven by a desire "to make a buck." Of course it is. So is mining gold, growing wheat, shearing sheep, and processing the paper on which environmentalist tracts are printed. To say an activity is done for profit just means that it satisfies somebody's desires.

What really irks environmentalists is what they regard as the unworthiness of the desires satisfied by animal products, such as the belief common throughout Asia that powdered antler and rhino horn restore health. These convictions may well be wrong (although many folk remedies have turned out to be effective), but how does that negate the right to act on them? If a Korean is willing to spend a week's wages on some nostrum, that would seem to be his business alone. No one disputes the right of Americans to spend billions in the equally superstitious hope that sports equipment endorsed by pros will make them better athletes.

Environmentalists chant the mantra of "rare" and "endangered" as if they made bans on trade self-explanatory. In fact, what happens with hard-to-find animals is what happens whenever demand outstrips supply: the price of goods rises until the two variables are in equilibrium. Should powdered rhino horn be going for $10,000/lb, a dip in the rhinoceros population will boost the price to $15,000, or $20,000...until every willing buyer can be accommodated. There is no such thing as "rarity," absolutely speaking. Tickets for a rock concert are scarce when 100,000 fans are screaming for 50,000 seats; 50 tickets are too many for an experimental drama no one wants to see.

Actually, the best way to save a species threatened by consumer demand is to privatize it. Are Koreans eager to buy bear paws? Then entrust bears to an entrepreneur eager to profit from this desire. Having invested in his ursine stock, he will be more keenly motivated than any government bureaucrat to protect them.

He will also minimize waste. Tendentious wildlife documentaries always show the rotting carcasses of animals slain for a single tusk or limb; this tragedy occurs because government stewardship of animals is aimless. The only person utilizing this resource is the poacher, but, as he has paid nothing for access to it, he has no incentive to be efficient.

A bear's owner, having poured wealth into its care and feeding, would never amputate its paws without having a way to sell the rest of it. (The Armour Foods Co. used to boast that "we use every part of the pig but its squeal.") Nature lovers desiring only to preserve animals are also entitled to buy them so long as they absorb the cost of upkeep—a chore that environmentalists seldom volunteer for.

A good example of what happens absent market discipline involves central Africa. The elephant populations in Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Namibia are growing as a result of the worldwide ban on ivory, but there is no money to care for them. These nations have petitioned the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species to be allowed to sell the ivory they have accumulated in the course of culling the herds and chasing poachers. At the behest of Switzerland and Japan, CITES appears willing to ease the ban; the US has objected strenuously.

But what if an endangered species is too widely scattered to be owned? And what about externalities? Let every lobsterman drop as many pots as he pleases, and soon there won't be any lobsters. Surely then the government may step in.

This objection also underestimates the resourcefulness of the market. Whenever supplies for an inelastic demand dwindle, markets tend to find substitutes. (When rising prices signaled the end of open land in cities, architects began to build upward instead of outward, creating skyscrapers.) Many of the animal products bought in Korea are intended to restore sexual vigor, apparently a preoccupation of men in that country; the stabilization of aphrodisiac prices beyond the reach of the average Korean male would create a niche for alternative tonics. Korean men might turn to ginseng, or join fitness clubs. Likewise, as scarcity has driven the price of lobster upwards, Americans have tried other sea creatures with a similar taste and texture, such as monkfish.

At this point environmentalists usually shift from bad economics to bad bio-theology. The disappearance of any species threatens the ecological balance, they tell us. Worse, something precious and irreplaceable will have been lost.

It does not take a biologist to see through the first warning. Consider that there are about 400 Woolly Spider Monkeys (a species ecology types like particularly) now left in the Brazilian rain forest, a territory roughly the size of the United States. How, then, can their disappearance make much difference to the food chain? How much do they consume? How many predators do they support, and are likely to die if those 400 individuals disappear? The very fact that a species is near extinction implies that its final demise will have negligible impact.

Environmentalists will rush in with the "butterfly effect," according to which a seemingly insignificant change may have global effects, on the balance of nature for instance. The trouble is, the whole idea of "balance" is a human imposition. All ecologies are in perpetual flux; populations grow, diminish and vanish as droughts follow floods, new predators enter, or a comet strikes from the blue. A few lichen clinging to a mountain peak is as "natural" as a teeming forest; it is as "natural" for wolves to deplete a herd of elk and then die of starvation as for the two populations to cycle in equilibrium, however pleasing the latter scenario is to our aesthetic sense.

As for the preciousness and irreplaceability of species, that too is no more than an aesthetic judgment, and in the light of history a rather silly one. Virtually every species that has ever existed has gone extinct. The dinosaurs vanished. Eohippus is no more. The spotted owl, the snail darter, and the skunk are in no obvious way more precious.

Still, the animal rights folks raise an interesting question. Animals, unlike minerals we dig from the ground, feel pain. What entitles us to treat them as resources? We wouldn't want advanced aliens harvesting us, so where do we get off harvesting lower forms?

The fancy answer is that human beings can reason and understand the golden rule, abilities denied to animals. We could remind aliens who treated us as resources that they would not like being treated that way, an argumentative gambit beyond your typical cow.

Unfortunately, this answer invites the further question, What's so special about being able to reason? In fact, any distinction one cares to name between man and animals can always be met with "what's so special about that?" Animal liberationists love to play this game, but they are ill-advised to do so, since they can't explain what's so special about feeling pain. So the fancy answer is a dead end.

A better one is that human beings simply cannot help but make use of animals. Nothing, least of all environmentalist nagging, is going to change us. As clever hairless omnivores, a desire to eat meat and to use our creatures to meet other needs is built into our genes. Yelling at someone to stop what he is unable to stop is a waste of breath. I know committed liberationists who have tried to make their cats vegetarians. Know what? It doesn't work. It won't work on humans, either.

Whenever environmentalists want to curtail freedom they remind us that man is part of nature, but they forget this at all other times. The fact is that human action is just one among the myriad factors, right along with those floods and droughts and comets, that determine who succeeds in the struggle for life.

A final irony. It is often pointed out that "zero population growth" agitation increases the population, since the only people that heed it tend to be conscientious. Because these conscientious souls restrict their own fertility they are soon outreproduced by the non-conscientious, who multiply at will. Similarly, any group of humans who became life-revering mystics and refused to make use of animals would quickly be replaced by more hard-headed "exploiters." The net result would be more fur coats, more medical experiments, and increased consumption of hamburger.


Michael Levin teaches philosophy at the City University of New York.

FURTHER READING: "The Rights of Animals" in Ethics of Liberty by Murray N. Rothbard (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1982), pp. 155-59; "Resolving the Tragedy of the Commons" by Robert J. Smith (Washington, D.C.: CEI's Center for Private Conservation, January 1996); and Americans for Medical Progress at website


Michael Levin

Michael Levin teaches philosophy at City College of New York.

Cite This Article

Levin, Michael. "Animals and the Market." The Free Market 15, no. 11 (November 1997).

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