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Four Legs Bad, Two Legs Good, A Continuing Series
November 12, 2013 Classical Liberalism

Here on our lovely campus I receive as a front-page feature story in my intranet page:

STUDENT was President of STUDENT GROUP last year the dining rep since her freshman year. STUDENT aims to “convert people through food.”

Let’s rewrite that. Wintercow was Director of the Classical Liberal Foundation and the Property Rights advocate since his rookie year, Wintercow aims “to convert people through economics.” I actually like the idea of everyone running around a campus trying to “convert” people to their cause. But of course, what is acceptable on our post-modern campuses is to convert people only to some particularly favored causes. I don’t think my job as a professor, by the way, is to help convert people to “my” cause. Why? Well, if it is easy for me to “convert” people, it is going to be just as easy for someone who is taller, better looking and more articulate than me to persuade people to join their tribe. I’m far better off trying to have folks understand just what it is that they are saying and hearing and let them have their own intellectual battle, all the while being clear where my own preferences lie. Second, many folks on campus are trying to convert people to their cause, they just aren’t willing to admit it, and dress it up as something other than what it really is. But, imagine the pushback or even outrage folks on campus feel when they think about “the economic way of thinking.” We’re evil devils for teaching people about scarcity and its implications. We’re evil devils, corporate lackeys, and so on for daring to draw out the lines of logic that follow from the idea of scarcity. And we’re certainly evil devils for encouraging people to apply these lines of logic to all manner of social phenomenon – it’s just not polite to do so.

None of this is to say that someone having  a particular food choice is “right” or “wrong.” That is merely the exercise of a preference. As economists and environmental researchers we might be able to address whether particular food choices actually do what folks claim they do, or at least encourage people to ask that question. But here on college campuses, all preferences are created equal except some are more equal than others.

"3" Comments
  1. Slightly off-topic but related: I’m 99% sure I know who this “STUDENT” is, and she’s far more partial to sane food policy arguments (concerning GMOs, organic food, “buying local” nonsense, etc) than any other vegan I’ve ever met. I’ve even been encouraging her to take your class next year. As you know, her movement actually _does_ have a substantial impact on emissions, water/land usage, and other environmental impacts that organic/local food floosies make false claims about. (And don’t get a vegan started on agricultural subsidies.) Animal rights activists have a lot of common ground with rational-food-policy types.

    On-topic again: I think there are some key differences here: 1. Veganism is still too small a movement to make people feel seriously threatened, since vegans and vegetarians aren’t in a position to influence political policy, except maybe around niche issues. 2. “Converting people through economics” would seem to imply that economics, as an entire field of study, leads people to specific conclusions. Yeah, I’m sure that, say, Krugrman would agree economic thinking helps remove a lot of specific fallacious ways of thinking, but I think many would object to the implication that simply thinking economically leads one to a specific political ideology.

    • Certainly off-topic, and not necessary. I don’t know why that even seems to be implied here. My only point was a simple one – perhaps I should have waited for some other interview, like how obviously awesome study abroad is, so as to not invoke a similar response. My point only was that some preferences are elevated above others. Which is I think as profound as saying that the oceans have a lot of water in them. And I sure hope that folks aren’t running around trying to tell people to take my classes. In any case, I don’t cover much of what I did when you took my class a year ago.

      As to the on-topic part, it is perhaps on topic. I don’t see the point here – does veganism imply a specific political ideology and more than economics does? As for “STUDENT” thanks for the note … not clear at all that the author got the sarcasm … or this reader (I’ve never been accused of being the brightest star in the sky).

  2. Yeah, hi, I’m “STUDENT”, and to set the record straight here, the person who interviewed me didn’t realize I was using the word ‘convert’ sarcastically. I was trying to tell the author that people are often confused about what veganism is and ask me what vegans eat, so I show them lots of pictures of foods I cook.

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