Guest Column (3/11/10)

The free market isn’t always the answer

March 11, 2010

By William Workman

In his guest column in the Observer on Feb. 25, Jacob G. Hornberger praises the free market system that allowed Washington D.C. grocery stores to restock their shelves quickly after two snowstorms.

Thanks to the “miracle of the market,” food appears “almost by magic,” packing stores with a “dizzying array of choices.” He compares this to the shoddy quality we could expect if the government ran the grocery business — one imagines long lines of sad-eyed people, waiting in the cold to trade state-issued coupons for cans of gray Comrade Chow.

But like many free market cheerleaders, Hornberger doesn’t know his history. “Suppose,” he asks ominously “that in 1900 it was decided that food was just too important to be left to the free market?” But of course, that’s exactly what happened, give or take a few years.

President Lincoln established the Bureau of Chemistry (predecessor of the FDA) way back in 1862. This was in response to a number of food scares, such as the Swill Milk Scandal, in which putrid milk was made sellable by adding flour or plaster of Paris, killing about 8,000 children.

In 1906 Congress passed the Meat Inspection Act, compelled by the horrors of the Chicago meat packing industry exposed in the landmark Neill-Reynolds Report. President Theodore Roosevelt had commissioned the report to discredit the claims in Upton Sinclair’s socialist novel “The Jungle,” but the reporters found conditions even more appalling than Sinclair described.

The next year saw the Certified Color Regulations, which prevents known toxins from being used as food coloring. From 1910 to 1912, many infants were killed by Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup for teething and colicky babies, which was unlabeled but contained morphine. The Shirley Amendment prohibiting false therapeutic claims followed in 1912.

There have been hundreds of food scares and scandals since, and Congress has passed hundreds of food and drug laws in response. The result is that we now enjoy unprecedented food quality, quantity and safety. Thanks to the “heavy hand” of government, we take for granted that a 16-ounce bottle of ketchup really contains 16 ounces, that smoked ham is really smoked (and really ham, not horse), that Vermont maple syrup is really from Vermont.

And no, Mr. Hornberger, that food doesn’t appear by magic; it travels via roads, rails and airports our government had a hand in building.

Of course, the real target of Mr. Hornberger’s essay is our public education system. He would like to see the government get out of the education business and turn it over to the free market, just like our food. So let’s turn his “what if?” around. What if our children’s education was in the hands of the same laissez faire capitalists who gave us swill milk, putrid meat and quack medicines, before the government intervened?


William Workman is a Williston resident.