Leiden Law Blog

Consumers and voters abdicate their own responsibilities

Consumers and voters abdicate their own responsibilities

For the past few weeks, European countries have been troubled by bird flu, and some people are getting a little nervous about the numerous innocent animals that are being ‘culled’, as this act of murder is euphemistically called. When the debate surrounding bird flu is not conducted in terms of ‘capital destruction’, ‘export loss’ and ‘personal tragedy for the poultry farmers’, some people dare to admit that all this is also a little inconvenient for the poor birds themselves. One of these brave people, who ran the risk of being accused of being a moral crusader, is the Dutch comedian, writer and amateur birdwatcher Hans Dorrestijn. In a TV-show called Pauw, Dorrestijn joined the bird flu debate in defense of the chickens. After courageously admitting that he himself likes to tuck into a piece of meat every now and again, Dorrestijn exclaimed indignantly that ‘people’ really should start doing something about intensive farming.

‘People should do something’

Dorrestijn’s comments reflect the opinions of a lot of other people, who have been publicly expressing their worries about the fact that no one seems to be doing anything about the obviously unsustainable situation in massive livestock farming. As the number of feathered victims increases, so these voices of concern grow louder. One after the other, public figures are calling for ‘people’ to do something about these chickens being kept together in such cramped conditions. But who are these ‘people’ that are going to save the world?

Two weapons of social change

In a liberal democracy with a capitalistic economy we can roughly discern two entities that have power. On the one hand there are the voters, who decide which policy makers they entrust with the governance of their country. On the other hand there are the consumers, who determine which products are bought in the free market economy. Both groups (often these are overlapping) have, in their own way, influence over that happens in certain parts of society.

The red pencil

Now, let’s take the wishes of Hans Dorrestijn and several other worried people as an example. Imagine that in a certain country, say the Netherlands, people don’t want chickens to be kept together in big stalls holding up to 30,000, but instead want their chickens held in stalls holding up to thirty. The voters of that country could put animal-friendly policy makers into parliament by voting for them, so enabling these representatives to realise the policies they would like to see. (Admittedly, in a country like the Netherlands this is more achievable than in a country like England, as it is easier for small parties to get into parliament in a political system of proportional representation than in a district system.) If this were to happen, the animal-friendly representatives could forbid intensive farming (and all its harmful consequences) by law. But even though this shouldn’t be a big problem in a legal sense, almost all the voters suddenly seem to forget their worries about intensive farming during election periods. The only Dutch party that is proven to be animal friendly under all circumstances, the Party for the Animals, currently has only two seats (out of 150) in parliament. Of course, the Party for the Animals is unable to ban intensive farming on its own. Dutch voters, it turns out, are not those ‘people’ who want to do something about the terrible conditions in the animal production industry. They only grant two seats in parliament to the party that wants to do anything about it.

The wallet

This leaves us with the other entity that has power in a liberal democracy: consumers. Consumers could turn the tide within a couple of days, if they would only stop buying chicken meat and eggs. Indeed, demand determines supply. However, surprisingly enough, self-acclaimed animal friends also suddenly forget their worries when shopping for their evening meal in the supermarket. Just like carnist Hans Dorrestijn, the average consumer complains that ‘people should do something about intensive farming’, whilst picking the remains of a chicken dinner from between their teeth. The worried consumers and voters leave their two weapons, the wallet and the red pencil, untouched. It should therefore be clear that the ‘people’ who are going to save the world, and especially the billions of tortured animals, do not exist. These ‘people’ are a chimera to whom guilt-stricken voters and consumers abdicate all responsibility. They are a spirit that consists of everybody else, except the deluded people themselves. These ‘people’, dear voters, dear consumers, dear Hans Dorrestijn, are yourselves.

This article was previously published in the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant  (December 5th, 2014, Opinie, p.26). 

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