Raw Milk Consumption: A Consensual Crime
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently published an article that synthesizes the arguments for and against raw milk consumption.
It strikes me that the debate over the appropriateness of raw milk consumption is a natural application of the general principle in Ain’t Nobody’s Business if You Do: The Absurdity of Consensual Crimes in Our Free Society, by Peter McWilliams, which we recently read for the Show-Me Institute’s book club. His central idea is the following:
You should be allowed to do whatever you want with your own person and property, as long as you don’t physically harm the person or property of a nonconsenting other.
It should not be the role of government to protect individuals from their own actions, such as consuming raw milk. Consumers of raw milk are rational, consenting adults. They can judge for themselves the costs and benefits associated with consuming milk that is unpasteurized. A person may harm himself by drinking raw milk (just as he may harm himself by drinking pasteurized milk), but he does not harm others by doing so.
Furthermore, it should not should not be the role of government to instruct individuals about which products are appropriate to consume and to produce, and which behaviors are appropriate to engage in, provided they do not hurt other individuals. Individuals who desire to buy raw milk should have the freedom to do so, and dairy farmers who want to produce and sell raw milk should similarly be free to do so.
As an unintended negative consequence, prohibiting the sale of raw milk will be ineffective at stopping its consumption; instead, it will drive such consumption underground and encourage real crimes. Raw milk bans will increase search and transaction costs for the consumer they could join a raw milk club, travel to a state that permits it, or buy the product disguised with a misleading label.
Sarah Brodsky has written previously about the laws related to raw milk consumption. McWilliams would disagree that the consumption of raw milk should be illegal. From his book:
People often use the word legal too loosely. They fail to give sufficient thought as to what legal and illegal really mean. When we say a given activity should be illegal, what we’re saying is that if someone takes part in that activity, we should put that person in jail. When it comes to consensual crimes, however, when people say, “It should be illegal,” what they usually mean is, “That’s not right,” “That’s not a good idea,” or “That’s immoral.” When using the word illegal, it’s important to remember how forceful the force of law truly is. We are all entitled, of course, to our opinions about certain activities, but do we really want to lock up people who don’t go along with our opinions?
Parenthetically, from the article, I suspect that raw milk bans could be motivated by rent-seeking behavior. Producers of pasteurized milk could encourage banning raw milk as a means to create a barrier to entry to the market:
To some, new legislative efforts to relax raw milk laws could encourage more producers in the struggling dairy industry to get into the raw milk game[.]
Similarly, bans on the production and sale of raw milk discourage small farms from entering and operating in the market, and they favor larger firms that currently operate in the market and possess the resources to pasteurize their product.