I Got Hooked on the White Stuff Back in the ’70s

disco-stu.bmpNo, not that white stuff. And not the white stuff that Disco Stu bought from Garth Motherloving. The white stuff I got hooked on (growing up on the family dairy farm) is raw milk — milk that has not been pasteurized or homogenized. Today’s NYT has an article on the growing black and gray markets in raw milk, which the Food and Drug Administration and 15 state legislatures want to shut down.

Yes, that’s right — Uncle Sam and 15 state governments prohibit consumers from buying milk fresh from the cow. And in the nannies’ defense, milk was responsible for much food-borne illness in the era before universal pasteurization. Most consumers likely prefer protection from nasty bugs like E. coli and salmonella.

But others are willing to risk exposure to those illnesses. Some raw milk enthusiasts claim the white stuff is more healthful than processed milk. Others (I count myself among these) say simply that it tastes better that the milk you buy at the store — people who try raw milk for the first time often comment that it tastes more like melted ice cream than the stuff that comes in cartons.

So why should raw milk fans be prohibited from buying the product they want?

That question also underlies Tim’s post, yesterday, about another FDA prohibition — keeping terminally ill patients from accessing experimental medicines. There is no public health issue with these products (my drinking raw milk might make me sick, but it’s not going to make sick the people I interact with on the street). And there is no fraud and abuse issue — these consumers know that they’re buying raw milk; indeed, they want raw milk. Consumers of raw milk (or experimental drugs to fight their cancers or HIV) realize that there is risk to these products but, given their medical conditions and their preferences, they’re willing to bear that risk in exchange for the products’ (possible) benefits.

Government prohibition of the sale of these products is nothing more than bureaucracy’s blanket imposition of its own risk preference on a large, heterogenous population that includes many people with differing preferences. One of the chief virtues of a free market is that it does a far better job of satisfying the heterogenous preferences of a population of consumers than a central planner ever could. Unfortunately, government often intervenes in markets and diminishes that virtue.

As Tim writes in his post, the FDA and its state-level imitators put a happy face on that intervention, claiming they are looking out for the public’s health. But in these cases, why aren’t members of the public permitted to look out after their own health?