Veganism, Year Eleven: Capitalism and Freedom

by Neil H. Buchanan

Yesterday was the eleventh anniversary of my becoming a vegan -- my veganniversary, as I still insist on calling it -- making today's column the first opportunity to offer my annual musings on all things vegan.  (Interested readers with time on their hands might want to read one or more previous veganniversary columns: 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, and the original announcement in 2008.  In my excitement in 2008, I also wrote a followup column a week later.)

I will divide my thoughts today into two categories.  First, I will offer some very anecdotal observations about living as a vegan in a world where attitudes about veganism are becoming interestingly complicated.  Second, I will use the increasing availability of vegan foods in mainstream stores and restaurants to make a point about why I am happy to call myself a capitalist in the way that Senator Elizabeth Warren calls herself a capitalist -- and, honestly, in the way that Senator Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would accurately call themselves capitalists if they were not so committed to their democratic socialist label/brand.

First, the annual summary of what it is like being a vegan in the worlds in which I operate:

In the past year, I have traveled more extensively abroad than I ever have before, spending more time overseas than I have in all previous years combined.  Importantly, this is entirely first-world travel, usually built around some kind of academic conference, visiting lectureship, or simply a vacation.  Just yesterday, I returned from a three-week trip to England, Scotland, and Germany, only the latter of which was not on my itinerary earlier this year (when I also visited Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Denmark).

Again, these are not diverse places in an economic sense -- much less in any ethno-racial senses, and even the pluralism that each of those countries has embraced is under at least as much threat as it is here among Donald Trump's white supremacist-afflicted polity.  Moreover, other than exceptions for visits to college towns, these trips have been limited to the capital city of each of these countries.  London and Cambridge (and Amsterdam and Leiden, for that matter) are no more representative of their countries than New York/Washington and, say, Gainesville or Ithaca are to the U.S.

Nonetheless, because I have traveled to most of these places multiple times over the past eight years or so, I do have a time-lapse view of these highly populous and socioeconomically dominant places.

And the good news is that veganism is ascendant.  Whereas I used to spend most of my time in restaurants hoping not to have to settle for a salad and fries (or chips, if in the U.K.) -- excitedly emailing Professor Dorf if I found a restaurant that even acknowledged vegans -- it is now simply expected that there will be multiple vegan-only restaurants in each of these cities.

Perhaps the most amazing thing was discovering that even seafood restaurants and steakhouses now offer a vegan option or two, and I actually found myself (due to academic commitments) at a steakhouse near the University of Leeds in England, staring at the "vegan selections" section of the menu -- and it was a full page long.  Coffee shops in Berlin offer clearly-labeled veggie and vegan baked items, to say nothing of offering a choice of at least three non-dairy milks for their coffee drinks.

I have written in previous veganniversary columns that I initially found vegan grocery shopping to be an easy transition (with a significant but quick learning curve), whereas eating out was always a challenge.  Now, nearly everywhere that I am likely to go -- and that includes U.S. cities like Buffalo and Louisville, not just Madison and Austin -- that is thankfully no longer true.  If one wants to eat vegan -- and one should! -- it has become very easy to do so.

And this brings me to the second category of thoughts, having to do with how veganism's social ascendance offers insights into the whole idea of capitalism.  Stay with me here, because the connection might not be obvious (or maybe it is), but I think it is important.

Veganism has become an economic force not only in the cities that I visit, after all.  It has become bigger and bigger business.  The Food section of The Washington Post -- not exactly a go-to source of forward-thinking commentary -- recently started a newsletter called "Plant Powered," offering recipes and commentary about plant-based (the new branding of the word vegan) eating.  It is no longer acceptable for a newspaper to publish an annual column with a snarky title like: "Your In-Laws Are Vegans or Druids or Something, and They're Coming for Thanksgiving; What Do You Do?"  This happened because The Post perceived that there is a base of readers who will support it.

Moreover, Big Food has discovered veganism.  Breathless stories have been published with titles like: "We’ll Always Eat Meat. But More of It Will Be ‘Meat’," reflecting trends in the food industry and showing that people who would never call themselves vegans (and who would never consider discontinuing family traditions built around killing birds, pigs, and so on) are becoming more and more interested in reducing the dead-animals-and-secretions part of their diets.

The biggest news on this front, of course, was the deal that created the Impossible Whopper, with Burger King partnering with the people who created the Impossible Burger, one of the two producers of truly extraordinary faux-meat burgers (along with Beyond Meat, which I prefer), to create a non-animal version of what the Germans call Der Whopper.

True, there are all kinds of ethical and strategic questions that vegans have been discussing regarding Impossible Burger's decision to partner with BK.  And there are even more basic questions about whether alternatives that convincingly reproduce the taste of animal meat are a good or a bad thing.  I am setting those issues aside for now, however, because I am simply fascinated by the economics on display here.

Apparently, the Impossible Whopper is "even better than the real thing," but how difficult is that?  Still it is notable that the Post reporter who rendered that verdict was not only relatively snark-free but even emphasized the environmental impact of meat-eating along with the ethical issues.  That writer also wrote a follow-up column in which he pointed out that Impossible Burgers are now (because of BK's high volume) becoming impossible (pun inevitable) to find in smaller restaurants.  Indeed, my favorite watering hole in Gainesville had to announce back in May that it could no longer sell the popular item because they could not get their hands on any of them.

Compare this to the very basic requests that vegans used to make.  When I first became a vegan, I wrote that it would be very helpful if groceries and restaurants would clearly label their foods -- ideally with a standardized Vegan symbol, but at least by listing ingredients clearly.  Interestingly, after I wrote that column, I received an angry email from some guy who identified himself as a corporate lawyer, who was angry that "you liberals are always demanding special treatment."  Asking for clear labeling is special-interest pleading?  Who knew?

But the better conservative response at that time -- not dispositive, but better -- was that "if this is something that people want, profit-seeking businesses will provide it; and if not, not."  This is, again, hardly a great argument, for reasons both obvious and not-so-obvious that are beyond the scope of discussion here.  In any case, even if it is not necessarily true that the absence of something is proof that no one wants it, it is true that the growing presence of something is strong evidence of its popularity.

In other words, although we cannot simply say that the Invisible Hand of the free market will solve all of the world's problems -- which carries the related (and more obviously troubling) implication that anything that the Invisible Hand does not solve is not a problem at all -- we can say that the growing availability of vegan items is evidence that we have achieved market critical mass.  We do not have to ask for labeling changes anymore, and we do not have to settle for one item on a restaurant menu (or none at all).  The profit motive is causing even a business built on industrial-scale cruelty like Burger King to rethink its product line.

All of which brings us back to Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and AOC.  Right-wing ranters, because they have nothing serious to say, are now loudly screaming about "socialism" and basically red-baiting the entire Democratic Party.  Once-semi-respected Senator Lindsey Graham recently took the obvious next step by saying that some of the Democrats' high-profile progressives are "a bunch of communists."  Not even socialists, but communists.  Yes, that is how far gone Graham has become.  And then there was the whole right-wing freakout over AOC's acknowledgement that factory-scale meat production is an environmental catastrophe, including its effect on air quality.  (Cue the fart jokes.)

But what Warren and the others are really saying is that capitalism can be a great thing, so long as the rules are set up in a way that prevents Wall Street predation and that protects workers and the environment.  Indeed, that is the "democratic socialism" that Sanders points to when he lauds Denmark for its enlightened policies.  Like in the U.S., if there is enough demand in a country like Denmark for a new product -- vegan cheese, for example -- then I cannot imagine any Democrat of any stripe saying that it is a bad thing when the profit motive leads suppliers to meet such consumer demand.

Back in 2011, before she won her Senate seat, I wrote a column in Verdict carrying this provocative (and long) title: "Whatever Happened to Making an Honest Buck? Wall Street Attacks Elizabeth Warren Because She Believes in Capitalism More Than They Do."  My main point there was that Warren understands that demanders and suppliers interacting in markets is often a great thing, with new or better products and services being offered at a speed and in a range that could never be replicated by a planned economy.  What she and I hate is that some people who call themselves capitalists have rigged the rules to enrich themselves and harm the rest of us, as if that version of vulture capitalism is the only way that the rules can be written.

Do I sometimes wish that I could be economic-planner-for-a-day and order the shutdown of all animal-based commerce?  In a word, yes, although my policy geek side immediately jumps to questions about transition rules, compensation for reliance interests, and so on.  I do know that such a move would create a vicious backlash, of course, and it would most likely end up causing people to defiantly refuse to change their eating habits.  It is an empirical question, but it is at least possible that the attempt to impose an end to animal exploitation could cause more aggregate suffering long-term than the path we are on.

In any case, we are on the path that we are on; and if one wanted to make the case that capitalism properly understood can move us in positive directions, the demand-leads-supply-feeds-back-on-demand loop that has created a more vegan-friendly economy in only a few short years should -- but definitely will not -- be Exhibit A for those who want to defend capitalism.