Who is afraid of sharing responsibility?
Updated on 16 September 2023
I’ve just received this breathless alert: a law is being passed in the New Zealand to take away the “God-given human right freely to cultivate food”. I don’t want to dwell into the specifics of the New Zealand law, but comment on the likely drive behind such laws. Food security has become a major government concern. Under the “precautionary principle” every food contamination scare leads to ratcheting up of food safety standards by the government. I’ve been aggressed in Milan (Italy) by an irate customer because I’d touched a head of salad in the supermarket without using a throw-away glove – I did not know this had become unlawful (outside the main centers this law is mainly ignored, by the way). This latest safety measure is spreading by emulation: throw away gloves have made their appearance in Swiss supermarkets, and many greens come now in sterile wraps. With tougher standards compliance and enforcement costs shoot up. Rationalization is called in to stem the surge. Economies of scale favor large producers who can easiest adapt to the new standards. Diversity is discouraged as we move toward “best practice”. Next global competition takes foreign producers into the orbit of national regulations: if they want to compete in a country, they too have to comply with the standards. A further round of rationalization (this time of standards) takes place as international agreements on food safety standards are negotiated. Every time I drive to nearby village of Worb I wax nostalgic at the sight of a derelict roadside stand where, 50 years ago, I bought delicious ham, and tasty bacon. It was such a treat. The butcher shop has long shut down – and I may have played an unwitting part in its demise, as I was a negotiator in an agreement between Switzerland and the EU about TBT in the food sector. When Switzerland decided, one way or the other to align its regulations of the EU market, it also bought in EU food security rules. They were so stringent, the “mom and pop” butchers could not follow suit. The whole artisanal food chain shut down: the wholesale slaughterhouses were not interested, hence not equipped, to deal with small batches of home-grown animals. Aspects of national and local culture were destroyed – in the name of “food security”. In the olden days the rule was “caveat emptor” – buyer beware. Food security was enforced mainly through local gossip, as well safe cooking procedures, and common sense. Then the government came into the act – by popular demand. More and more responsibility shifted to the public sphere – mostly by necessity; increased knowledge about (hidden) sources of food poisoning demanded scientific knowledge beyond the capabilities of the harried house person (I do much cooking). Sharing food security between the supplier, the state, and the consumer, is a “three body problem” – it is inherently unstable and chaotic. The tendency is for the consumer to abdicate more and more responsibility – the state becomes the “great attractor” (of chaos theory fame). Once in the “passive mode”, consumer ignorance feeds on itself. Big business and big government collude, claiming they keep enforcement costs down. Diversification with its unending variety yields to standardization – and “safe” albeit tasteless meat. Have costs been truly lowered? In all likelihood it is an illusion. Even “best practice” is seldom totally failsafe – it is safe and low cost only on a day-to-day basis. When it fails – a catastrophic and excessively costly “black swan” event may ensue. What has been saved now goes out the window to deal with the calamity. The shipwreck of the Costa Concordia (too big to sail) off the Italian coast highlights the hidden consequences of grievous error or mistake, which undermines “best practice”. Sure the boat was “best practice” in safety, comfort and low cost for the experience – until it was driven onto a reef. Then the system collapses. In addition, if tourists no longer trust these mega-hotels on the swell the outcome of the event may be the demise of the whole industry and technology. Such is the fate of path-dependent outcomes. An alternative regulatory strategy may be for both state and citizens to share responsibility in a structured fashion. Sharing responsibility is alien to a “culture of truth” – for malpractice lawyers may not be able to pin blame precisely. It is also alien to a culture of “division of labor”, which flips the individual back and forth between his active role as “worker” and the passive one as “consumer”. The sun, the earth and the moon are a “three body system”. Far from being chaotic, the presence of the moon in all likelihood so stabilized the earth’s rotation that life could emerge. Sharing responsibility in a structured way may not be logically perfect, but it works – sometimes. PS – Advocating “God-given human right freely to cultivate food” is dangerous hyperbole, for it debases the very concept of “human right”. It reminds me of my youth at UC Berkeley. We were forever making “non-negotiable demands” – from weakness.