The Generalist

More on the FDA

Recently I wrote a quick post about the FDA in relation to a TV show on Animal Planet called I’m Alive. I received a couple of comments, but one of them requires a little more explanation so I’ve decided to answer it as a post.

First, the title of that article is “Yet another example of why the FDA ought to be abolished” and it is really yet another. It is certainly not the most compelling. Government agencies like the FDA violate ethical and political theory and as a consequence they result in negative outcomes. Understanding theory requires time and effort so it is generally these consequences that get people’s attention. Nevertheless, it is important to realize that they are consequences, i.e., concretes, where the argument requires abstraction.

A thorough discussion of the ideal in government is really a subject for a book. It requires strictly defining terms and discussing why central planning in general is unethical. In this post, though, I might be able to elucidate a bit for those who are new to the subject by revealing the true purpose of an agency like the FDA.

Any government agency has two purposes, an ostensible purpose, the one that the people buy into, and the real purpose, the one that those in control want to achieve. (See my post A Spoonful of Sugar for more on this). Let’s just take the FDA, DEA and USDA as examples (you can do this with pretty much any government agency and rather than repeat myself, I’ll let you do some of that. Go ahead and post some in the comments section if you like.)

Agency Ostensible Purpose Real Purpose
FDA To protect individuals from “snake oil salesman” To protect businesses from competition (i.e., to ensure a monopoly)
DEA To protect individuals from becoming drug addicts
  • To protect businesses from competition
  • To provide a source of monopolistic income to governments
USDA To protect individuals from food borne illness
  • To protect businesses from competition
  • To centrally control the population by controlling the food supply

As you can see, government is particularly useful for preventing business competition. If you doubt this is the real purpose of these agencies, below is a list of books which will teach you a little about the history of government interference with the market economy.

I will elaborate a bit on the arguments the people generally believe (it is these beliefs that a discussion of ideal government would dispel). For those who worry about “snake oil salesman” it is important to note that there already exists within a proper system of justice protection from them – it is the law against fraud.

Now some may argue that the law against fraud is not enough because it doesn’t protect people before the crime. But no legitimate law can punish crime before it happens. The law serves to protect people by making an example of those who commit crime. In fact, protecting people from making mistakes leads over time to a population that is particularly vulnerable to such mistakes and this of course plays right into the hands of the real snake-oil salesman – the one who wrests control of the apparatus of government. An analogous situation might be the infant whose immune system remains unchallenged. He never builds up an immunity to disease while he is young and so remains particularly vulnerable.

Now, do these agencies sometimes do what people think they are supposed to do? Yes, sometimes they are successful in preventing a dangerous drug from making it to the market – after all, not everyone working as a cog in the wheel is aware of the real reason the agency exists – some people actually believe they are working for the benefit of individuals. But it’s important to realize that this function can be served in better ways – ways that do not impact the freedom of individuals to behave ethically and therefore do not have the negative consequences associated with these agencies.

I hope this clarifies somewhat my position on the FDA. For those who wish to do some studying on their own I highly recommend the following books.

The Myth of the Robber Barons by Burton Folsom (good for beginner)
The Case Against the Fed by Murray Rothbard
The Law by Frederick Bastiat
The Road to Serfdom by F. A. Hayek
The Virtue of Selfishness by Ayn Rand (ethical theory)

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