Chickens and Hayek

I strongly recomment a listen to The Inquiry – How did we mess up antibiotics?

A part of the story involves chickens. The figure below is from businessinsider.

Clearly, there is something not natural going on here. Back in 1989 I went on a trek in the far north of Thailand. In the villages, chickens ran about everywhere and one day they were caught and served for dinner. What struck me was how different this dark tasty meat was from the white tasteless stuff I had experienced before. I became a vegan and have avoided eating chicken ever since (apart from a couple of cases where I did not want to offend a host).

But the interesting part of the chicken story, see also here, has nothing to do with me – it is about how the needs of business – to profit from lead in petrol, CFCs, fossil fuels, neonicinitoids – are often put ahead of the needs of people.

Battery chicken farms were introduced to the UK by Antony Fisher founder of the Institute for Economics Affairs, a lobbying group that did and still does so much to promote deregulation, see Adam Curtis’ The curse of TINA. One of the pillars of the neoliberal ideology that underpins organisations such as the IEA is Hayek’s maxim that decisions should be left to “the man on the spot”.

Hayek’s great mistake was the failure to appreciate the extent to which the “man on the spot”, first did not know everything, and secondly is incentivised to withhold information in order to serve his own ends. What is good for business is not necessarily good for everyone. There has to be a balance between open science, regulation and business, and in this a strong state (with democractic oversight) has an important role to play.

Whether with respect to antibiotic resistance, climate change or international trade agreements, we are likely to find that chickens will remain centre stage in the ideological battle for some time to come.


  1. Donald Manchester -

    I do find it odd that a vegan can support EU membership, whose number one budget item is the centralisation of subsidies to people who own more than 5ha of agricultural land ( or people with more landed wealth than the median person who has none ). The CAP results in subsidies being allocated by land area, and in round numbers it takes 5 times as much land to produce a unit of animal protein as it does for non-animal protein. I’ve seen numbers ranging from 2.5 to 10. No matter what, it’s clear that the subsidy system acts as an effective support mechanism to meat production and customers thereof far more so than it does to those who aare vegetarian or even vegan. And this is the number one thing the EU does in financial terms.
    At least under Brexit, the system will be reviewed. Under a Remain scenario it won’t be. It might be in 20 years time when all the members have reached today’s level of development, concern for the environment, and knowledge of the relative harms of meat production compared to the alternatives. And all members agreeing to do something about it. Even then, changing it may get deferred further as candidate EU members may have joined by then, and will have done so expecting farm support for their own landowners and a new set of interests have to be accommodated before anything is changed.
    I just can’t square veganism which is a pretty serious lifestyle commitment with simultaneous support for the EU which has de facto disproportionate support for meat production as its primary financial activity.

    1. Charles Adams -

      Interesting and good points about the need for reform of the CAP. The EU is many things, some of them contradictory, but I do not see how there is anything to gained by leaving. Given that the major problems we face are global I believe we have to be a part of any organisation that may be able to help find solutions. I guess it comes down to whether you believe the EU can do any good. Having lived in other countries and working direclty with many partners across Europe, I have slighly more confidence in the EU than in the UK elite.

      As you say veganism is an individual lifestyle choice and does not have to be political. I do not suggest that others should become vegan. Only that they have sufficient information and the freedom to be able to make beneficial choices.

      1. Donald Manchester -

        I do not see how there is anything to gained by leaving
        I don’t think you meant this. Two sentences earlier you pointed out that CAP needs reforming. Leaving means that 1/8th of the CAP gets reformed ( our bit plus what we give to others in hand outs ) . That at least is something
        There’s only one way I can reconcile your claim, which is that you believe there are advantages to centralisation which cannot be achieved by devolution of the decision to give hand outs to land-owners to member States. Have you got any analysis which supports such a claim that centralisation is better?

      2. Charles Adams -

        EU is about a lot more than agriculture. EU is a cooperation not a centralisation, power rests with the member states.

        Economics is a collective distributional struggle where the biggest are the most powerful and tend to win. Big is US and China. UK is less than 1% of global population (and a net food importer). Yes we can go off and do our own thing but most of the rest of the World do not care. We, at least, have more say and influence as a part of the EU.

        And if you are worried about UK land policy we have the fiscal freedom to tackle that domestically anyway.

  2. Peter May -

    Good programme – thanks! It is worryingly ironic that the whole antibiotic resistance story demonstrates some of the failures of free market capitalism. Yet antibiotic use led to the Buxted Chicken fortune being used to spread free market capitalism and its failures even more widely.
    I doubt whether it will be heard by those purchasing Asda’s £2 chickens…

    1. Charles Adams -

      Ironic indeed. In the long term, unregulated capitalism fails because the gains are made at the expense of elsewhere and eventually it runs out of fertile ground to exploit. The problem is that in the short term individuals can make attractive profits along this path of destruction, and by the time we realise what is happening, they are long gone.

  3. Graham -

    More than 40 years ago this is what decided us to try and grow as much as we could of our own food. That way we could at least be sure what went into our chickens, cattle, ducks, pigs and so on. We never fed them additives and never sprayed our vegetables. Self-sufficiency was a buzzword and John Seymour the guru. Now that we are retired we try to buy as much organic food as possible, keep a few laying hens and grow a lot of veg. The only problem is that some organic produce is of very poor quality – meat that’s tough or has enormous amounts of fat and veg and fruit that looks like it’s being found lying in a bit somewhere. And a lot comes from abroad. So the next best thing is buying local where we can and hoping…

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