Veganism, Year Ten: Neoliberal Animal Welfarism?

by Neil H. Buchanan

Ten years ago today, in a column here on Dorf on Law titled "Meat, Dairy, Psychology, Law, Economics," I described why I had decided to become a vegan.  Every year since then, in what I have taken to calling my veganniversary columns, I have written a followup column on this topic.  (See 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, and the original from 2008, along with a second column a week later).

My columns over the years have covered a wide variety of topics, sometimes simply offering updates on practical matters that vegans face in the non-vegan world but other times using veganism as a lens through which to view other issues (for example, my column last year discussing hipsters and veganism).  Today, I will do a bit of both, offering some quick thoughts about the practicalities of being a vegan before turning to a discussion of how vegan issues arise in more general political debates.

The short version of this column is that it has become very easy to be a vegan in terms of day-to-day living, but for those of us who became vegans for ethical reasons, it can often be difficult to navigate the policy terrain, for surprising reasons.

In a column that I wrote during my very recent working visit to Vienna, I noted the progressivism of that city by focusing on its Pride Parade and the various ways in which Austrian politicians (even center-right politicians) now treat LGBT rights as a mainstream issue.  I noted in the column that I had sent emails to friends with comments along the lines of "It's so nice to be in a civilized country!" and then added parenthetically: "That sentiment is also supported by the notable vegan-friendliness of this city."

Because this is the ten-year mark of my life as a vegan, I have been reflecting on the remarkable transition in the vegan-friendliness of eating at restaurants.  When friends and family over the years have asked questions like, "Isn't it hard to be a vegan?" they have been saying that it is difficult to imagine keeping track of what is in the various foods that we eat.  My reaction has generally been: "Eating at home is easy, but restaurant eating is admittedly a bit more difficult."

In essence, the larger message that I have wanted to convey is that there is no denying that becoming a vegan feels like a big effort for a short time, but it is actually much easier -- and the transition period during which extra thinking is necessary before new patterns set in is much shorter -- than I ever would have thought.  Simple honesty demands that I admit that this is not easy in the sense of being effortless, but the efforts involved are actually quite limited and are more than worth it.

Even four or five years ago, the restaurant aspect of being a vegan still was notably different.  Even in larger cities, it was necessary to accept the possibility that the only vegan items on the menu would be a side salad and french fries.  Now, not just cities like New York and Vienna but even less cutting-edge places like Washington have so many vegan and vegan-friendly restaurants that one barely needs anymore to find a good restaurant (although that is still a great resource).

Having grown up in Toledo, Ohio, and with annual trips to Buffalo and Rochester to visit my wife's family, I frequently find myself in places where one might expect the local restaurant culture to be either hostile to or ignorant about diets that do not seem "normal."  Happily, however, those cities as well as other medium-sized cities like Richmond, Louisville, Charleston SC, and even Green Bay now all have many restaurants where the menus are labeled clearly and one no longer needs to engage in the uncomfortable dodge of asking about "dairy issues" in the hope that an uninformed server will respond to the implied worry about lactose intolerance rather than responding with hostility to the word vegan.

In part, this change is simply an artifact of the trend of young people living in cities again.  Although I pointed out in my veganniversary column last year that hipsters have a complicated relationship to veganism (being aware of it but wanting to mock it in the way that hipsters mock everything), the simple fact is that because of the city/non-city divide in American politics (which has replaced the Blue State/Red State divide), many if not most cities in the U.S. and other rich countries are now simply more progressive in ways that include making life for vegans easier.

Now, when people ask, "But isn't it hard?" I can honestly say that it is not at all hard to be a vegan and even to travel as a vegan.  That is a very recent, and very welcome, development.

As I noted above, however, the U.S. political environment raises some other issues than can raise uniquely challenging questions for vegans.  Perhaps surprisingly, the gun-control debate is especially difficult for a vegan to stomach, because the Democrats who try to straddle the political divide almost always try to prove their "I'm not an extremist" bona fides by pointing out that they like to hunt.

To be clear, people who do not hunt but do consume animal products that other people have tortured and killed have at best an uneasy case when they try to say that at least they do not kill animals themselves and thus are morally superior to hunters, but that is not the issue here.  It simply should not be necessary for a person to say, "You know, I hate seeing all of these people being killed because of the ready availability of guns in this country, but you should know that I'm no anti-gun crazy because I like to kill innocent animals for sport!"

This is especially annoying because that tactic simply does not work.  When John Kerry was the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004, he infamously went on a hunting trip to prove that he (the product of American aristocracy and the husband of the Heinz ketchup heiress) was a regular guy.  He looked ridiculous, and it is impossible to imagine that anyone said, "Oh, he just shot a bird that was frantically trying to save its own life.  I wanna have a beer with him!"

More to the point, the ubiquitous stories about how people have fond memories of going hunting as children and bonding with their fathers is weird nonsense.  Trying to prove that one is humane by highlighting one's gratuitous cruelty is a puzzling strategy.  And even if I am wrong in thinking that it is an ineffective political move, it certainly makes me uncomfortable as a vegan to find myself allying with people who think it is politically clever to brag about killing innocent creatures.

A more complicated version of this issue arises in the context of what I called in the title of this column "neoliberal animal welfarism."  A good example of this appeared in The New York Times in March of this year.  There, the author -- who felt the need to begin the piece by protesting that "I would rather be eating a cheeseburger right now. Or maybe trying out a promising new recipe for Korean braised short ribs." -- described some recent research that confirmed (again) that non-vegan living is not just killing and torturing animals but destroying the environment, too.

The numbers are stark, and the economists who analyzed the damage to the environment caused by animal exploitation have proposed what the author of the NYT article refers to as a "carbon tax on beef."  And as far as it goes, that is a very fine idea.  One might even forgive the author for ending the piece by overselling his "I'm just a regular guy" pose by writing: "I crave the aroma of beef, from a burger, or a barbecue brisket cooked low and slow. It’s just harder to enjoy it now when I can also catch the faint whiff of methane lingering 20 years into our increasingly uncertain future."

To be clear, there is nothing at all objectionable about the idea that we should create economic incentives for people to stop causing animal suffering.  The reason that I call this neoliberal, however, is that it clearly has nothing to do with the fundamental moral case against harming animals.  Indeed, because it is simply a proposal to impose what economics nerds call a Pigouvian tax (a tax that tries to "internalize" an external cost that people create when they do not face the full economic consequences of their decisions), it necessarily is based on the idea that there is an efficient amount of animal exploitation and that we must find it.

What could that mean?  One of the more interesting -- and truly unusual -- aspects of veganism is that it can be justified independently in four different ways: morally, environmentally, epidemiologically, or economically.  When Bill Clinton announced that he had adopted a vegan diet, he was clear that he had done so for health-related reasons.  (Indeed, some vegans argue that this means he is not a vegan at all, but I will leave that categorization debate to the side.)  The combination of environmental and health-related costs create economic arguments -- both micro- and macroeconomic, with the latter being driven by the effects of animal exploitation on government budgets (rebuilding after flooding, Medicare costs to address heart diseased, and so on) -- to oppose animal exploitation.

This creates a rare situation in which it is not necessary to talk about tradeoffs.  For example, if it were actually true (as some people still wrongly claim, against all evidence) that humans need to consume animal flesh and secretions in order to live healthfully, there would be an interesting set of questions about the morality of using other beings for our own benefit.  (The book and movie "Never Let Me Go" provide an achingly sad parable along these lines, where the exploited beings are what  can only be called farmed humans.)

This means that ethical vegans can usually stand with environmental, epidemiogical, and economic vegans (with or without ironic quotes around that last use of vegan), without worrying about whether their various reasons for being vegans conflict with each other.  The difference is that all but the ethical vegans view their goal as merely sufficient reduction in animal exploitation to meet some other goal, where as ethical vegans view the elimination of animal exploitation as the goal itself.

In short, this is simply another way to revisit the rights-versus-welfare debate, with people like the NYT reporter (and the economists that he cites) being on the welfarist side and ethical vegans being on the side of fundamental animal rights.  It means that being an ethical vegan often puts one in the position of agreeing with people who "really want some braised short ribs."  These are the same people who say that we should be pleased with the "happy meat" movement, in which animals are treated (or, at least, the public is told that they are treated) somewhat less cruelly before they are tortured and killed.

For an ethical vegan, it makes no sense to analyze animal cruelty as an externality rather than a moral issue.  And that is why this debate is actually similar to the argument that I described above in which Democratic centrists say, "I'm for gun control, but I'll still happily kill animals."  Tradeoffs are inherent in everything we do, but the idea that we should simply smile and say thank you when someone advocates immorality for some larger good is especially horrifying when the immorality involved is so utterly gratuitous and wanton.

So, yes, I have been a vegan for ten years now.  It is easier than ever to be a vegan, and the arguments against it have only become weaker over time.  The world is in small ways getting better on these issues, but it is impossible not to feel that the progress is still excruciatingly slow.