Vegetarian Culpability Part 2 (Economics of Information Edition)

Previously, I wrote about the paralysis that a vegetarian would face if confronted with a broad view of production inputs. Namely, that hunting Cecil the lion was part of the dentist’s maintenance of his own labor. Given that preferences are diverse, we’re all perpetually facing a similar dilemma: If we trade with someone, then we are definitely, 100% helping them to do immoral things with which we disagree.

After a good night’s rest, I awoke and realized an age-old tool that humans have used to address the issue. As humans, we care and know most about those people who are closest to us. My previous analysis took as given that all of the relevant information concerning our trade partners was available. However, as Stigler knew well, information is a good and it’s costly to obtain.

When you know that your local lawyer is also a drug-dealer and a lecher, you don’t employ his services. Of course, your moral taste dictates a boycott as appropriate because his actions would be aided by your cooperative trade. The information about his divergent moral preferences is cheap and easy to obtain.

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Vegetarian Culpability

Do you remember that dentist who went to Africa and shot Cecil the lion? I had a vegan friend who said that she would boycott him – had he been her dentist.

I can’t tell you how many questions I had. Why boycott him? In a competitive market, it would have no long-run impact on his economic profits. Was it important that his murder of Cecil was part of his consumption/leisure behavior rather than part of his provision of dental services? Does trading with people who have different preferences make one morally culpable for their consequently afforded activities?

A Trip Down Reasoning Lane

Let’s take some things as given. 

  • My friend is vegan and didn’t want Cecil to be on the receiving end of homicide (leon-icide?). 
  • Big-game hunting was a consumption activity for, who I’ll call, the dentist.
  • Everyone has unique preferences – including moral tastes.
  • Voluntary trade makes both parties better off.
  • There are a variety of input combinations that a firm can adopt in order to create output.
  • Humans are responsible for their own behavior to varying degrees.

My understanding of my friend’s would-be boycott is that lion-hunting was a direct result of the dentist’s inappropriate preferences and economic empowerment. Therefore, boycotting the dentist would reduce the dentist’s budget, and consequently reduce his spending on improper activities. Knowing that the dentist would spend his income in this manner makes each transaction with him a contribution to satisfying his illicit preferences.

Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems

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Vegetarians and Profits

Like most people, vegetarians have some weird opinions. Let’s assume that they have the ultimate goal of fewer live-stock deaths and less chattel cattle. Ask a vegetarian what they are achieving by choosing not to eat meat and you’ll hear the explanations let loose. By abstaining from meat they’re “reducing factory farm profits” or “helping to keep the price of beef low and unprofitable”. While being a vegetarian may save more cows from the butcher’s blade, it’s not at all clear that vegetarians have a good understanding of their sometimes perpetual boycotts.

What do vegetarians even do?

The decision to consume meat or not falls nicely into the supply-and-demand framework. Fewer people willing to eat meat means fewer purchases of meat products – no matter the price. A decline in meat demand lowers both the number of cows that ranchers will raise a slaughter and the price that they receive. There you have it. By lowering demand for meat, vegetarians reduce both the quantity and price of meat, reducing profits for those evil, animal-carving businessmen.

Not so fast.

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