Labelling Genetically Modified Foods

The New York Times has an article about the movement by environmental groups and organic farmers to require that products with genetically modified ingredients include a label mentioning this (hat tip: Tyler Cowen):

If the California initiative passes, “we will be on our way to getting GE-tainted foods out of our nation’s food supply for good,” Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association, wrote in an letter in March seeking donations for the California ballot initiative. “If a company like Kellogg’s has to print a label stating that their famous Corn Flakes have been genetically engineered, it will be the kiss of death for their iconic brand in California — the eighth-largest economy in the world — and everywhere else.”

Well, maybe.  Labelling requirements don’t always work in the way that the Organic Consumers Association believe they do.  If labels give people information that they don’t care about, then the labels will be ignored.   The California initiative mentioned in the article brings to mind another California initiative: Proposition 65, which required all kinds of labelling in stores.  If you pay attention in California you will see various stores have warning signs saying that this store has hazardous chemicals in it that can be harmful to your health.  Most people don’t even notice the signs and no one, as far as I can see, pays any attention to them.  Why?  Because the signs are not credible: people simply don’t believe that the stores are dangerous and so they discount the information in them.

The genetically modified food labels may or may not have that effect.  It is possible that an alarmed public might react, especially at first, to the labels.  But there is a good chance in my view that over time they will come simply to be ignored.

In my prior post on certification, I mentioned this aspect of labelling requirements:

Another important benefit of this certification system is that it would provide the government with an incentive to select desirable certification requirements.  If the government requires excessively strict requirements, then lawyers and the public will simply ignore it.  In that situation, meeting the certification requirements would be too expensive and therefore few attorneys would do so.  As a result, few people would insist on their attorney having the certification.

Of course, voters who adopt propositions may not care about actually influencing people.  But legislatures or government agencies (who are the ones involved in regulating lawyers) are likely to both care and to have the knowledge over time of whether their actions are having a real world effect.

Some labelling requirements really are important and informative.  For example, the labels on movies, such as R or PG 13, really do matter to many people.  But many labels do not.

The Revolution Harold Berman Made, Part II

Law and Revolution

In the first post I introduced Berman’s overall project. Now I would like to explore Berman’s volumes in Law and Revolution which critique dominant views of the relation between law and society.  Berman saw law as a reflection of society’s most profound beliefs rather than simply a mirror of its economic or technological structure. Because the most fundamental beliefs in the West were Christian, law thus necessarily depended on developments in Christianity.  As law is refracted through such beliefs, it then shapes the structures that define the exercise of political power. Thus, Berman turns Marxist analysis on its head.  It is not the social and economic structure that determines beliefs through power relations.    Fundamental beliefs shape the social and economic structure through law.  

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Class Act


My buddy (and former AEI colleague) Ted Frank, who blogs at Point of Law, runs the Center for Class Action Fairness. CCAF’s sole and wholly salutary purpose is to blow up collusive, plutocrats-of-the-world-unite-and-screw-the consumers settlements between class action lawyers and corporate defendants who, if it weren’t for the trial bar, would deserve everything the trial lawyers dish out to them (and then some). (Disclosure: I serve on CCAF’s Board.) The world hates Ted but once in a while, he finds an impartial forum, as here.

To summarize one of the funniest appellate arguments I’ve yet heard:

Mr. Frank: Your Honors (Judges Bauer, Easterbrook, Posner), I have one minor procedural point and a point of professionalism: I can cite precedents and page numbers in F3d, in the unlikely event that Judge Posner should care. That said, I cede the entirety of my argument time to get out of the way of the coming train wreck.

There follows an extended colloquy between the plaintiffs’ lawyer and the judges.

Lawyer: I have a perfectly fine case for collecting fees for a lawsuit that makes my nominal clients worse off. Here’s my argument: WALMART!!

Judges (in umpteen variations): Are you saying what you just said because your obviously baseless case requires it, or are you actually that stupid?

Mr. Frank, on rebuttal: I have one more FSupp cite but mostly I want to be out of here.

Game, set, match. Congrats.

License to Kill

Today’s Washington Post features a front-page article on “A legal case that’s not so open and shut,” featuring a challenge to a Louisiana state law requiring casket sellers to obtain a license that, inter alia, demands a layout parlor, an embalming room, and the employment of a state-approved funeral director. Plaintiffs are monks at St. Joseph’s Abbey, which lacks any and all of those accoutrements. Still, the monks find both economic and spiritual fulfillment in building caskets. It’s what they do when they’re not in prayer or lounging around the pool: blessed are you a monk swimming. (Belated Catholic joke alert.) What the monks demand to know, along with the rest of us, is where the heck the state gets off passing a law like that.

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Harold Berman’s Revolution in Western Legal Thought, Part I

In a series of posts, I will discuss the great enterprise of the late professor Harold Berman.  That enterprise was nothing less than to relate fundamental developments in Christianity and other core beliefs to fundamental developments in law. In this post I will introduce Berman and his project.   In the second, I will summarize some of the most important themes of his books. In the third and fourth, I will offer my own views on some of the implications of his narrative for liberty.

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When States Go Broke

Just out from Cambridge University Press: When States Go Broke, a fine volume on “The Origins, Context, and Solutions for the American States in Fiscal Crisis” edited by Peter Conti-Brown and David A. Skeel, Jr.  Skeel had an excellent essay in 2010 in The Weekly Standard that explored some of the thinking in this volume “Give States a Way to Go Bankrupt.”  The insane price ($99) may reflect the publisher’s judgment that if states go broke, they might as well take book buyers and libraries along for the ride. ‘Tis a pity, because the volume is unusually timely and thought-provoking. A few notes on some of the essays, with no prejudice to the other contributors:

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Rev. Robert Sirico’s Moral Case for a Free Economy

A word of advice about Rev. Robert Sirico’s just released Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy: Do not tell yourself that you will “just read a chapter” in your office before settling down to do the work that you absolutely must do before your week begins. I made that mistake, and read about two-thirds of the book in one go. I only stopped reading because there was nothing left to read; I finished the book.

Sirico at one point says that a favorite compliment is “being told that I have put into words what someone has thought for a long time but never been able to articulate” (106). I can’t pay him that compliment; I can say something stronger: Sirico puts into words things I’d never thought of, but wish I had. I found myself, while reading the book, trying to take a mental note of some of his very best one liners, turns of phrase, and examples, in an effort to store them for future use.

Sirico shows repeatedly, and even doggedly, that the enemies of free markets have it exactly wrong. One doesn’t have to choose between helping the poor and markets; between health care and markets, or between protecting the environment and markets. On the contrary, as he puts it, if you want to help the poor, start a business; if you want people to receive health care, then don’t let a state-funded bureaucracy suck the compassion out of medicine, and, if you want to save tigers and elephants, then give people property rights in them, etc.

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Peter Berger

Richard Reinsch recommends this review of Peter Berger’s intellectual autobiography, which I also recommend.  Berger is an interesting thinker.  One bit from the review illustrates one of the major vices of intellectual endeavor — confirmation bias — which is clearly part of the problem that prevents the progress that the Enlightenment envisioned from occurring:

One of [Berger's] female friends was very supportive of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. He decided to introduce her to a Latvian couple capable of describing the persecution they had endured at the hands of Communist enforcers. After a certain point in the conversation, the young woman put her hands over her ears and said she did not want to hear any more. Afterwards, she told Berger that she believed the Latvians, but was sure that there was some additional information that would change everything they said. She told Berger she would check it out. He never saw her again. The point is clear. People maintain all kinds of beliefs against disconfirmation.

The review notes that Berger changed his mind about the relative merits of capitalism and socialism:

His early work was basically agnostic between socialism and capitalism, but over time he found his estimate of the relative merits of the two systems had changed. He found himself repelled by Marxism and increasingly convinced that the fundamental claim of capitalism to lift great masses of people out of abject poverty and into a decent standard of living is “empirically valid.” Interestingly, Berger saw his embrace of capitalism as primarily a matter of pragmatism. In other words, he moved away from socialism and toward capitalism because he felt the former does not work, whereas the latter does.

While the review does not say so, I assume it is referring to Berger’s much underappreciated classic “The Capitalist Revolution: 50 Propositions about Prosperity, Equality and Liberty.”  I strongly recommend the book, although it is a bit out of date (having been published in 1986).  The book attempts to evaluate the theoretical claims made about capitalism and socialism from a empirical perspective.  While Berger is clearly a fan of capitalism, he attempts to look at the evidence in an impartial way and departs from the capitalist viewpoint in various ways.  It is the work of an empirically oriented sociologist who is favorable to capitalism and is therefore unusual.

Who is to say Nay to the People? Publius, Majority Rule, and Willmoore Kendall

The Enduring Importance of Willmoore Kendall

Once upon a time in America, conservatives celebrated Congress as the last best hope to preserve the authentic traditions of republican government.  As recently as the 1960s, it was “conservative” to look to the first branch of government as the indispensable bulwark against the Imperial Presidency, Supreme Court activism, plebiscitary democracy, and federal social engineering programs.  As long as the American people also looked to Congress to play this defensive role, the political system would remain intact.

       No postwar conservative was more optimistically wedded to this perspective than Willmoore Kendall (1909-1967).  Kendall, a defender of majority-rule (with some qualifications), particularly stood out among conservatives of his time as a fervent believer in the good sense of his fellow Americans to elect the “best men” to office.  Americans were at least capable of being the “virtuous people,” who would insist that Congress preserve the traditions of the Founding.  The principal evidence to which Kendall referred here was The Federalist, a text that he treated as political scripture for Americans.  Kendall insisted that the Federalist provides the best possible interpretation of the Constitution of the United States.  In his 1965 essay, “How to read ‘The Federalist,’” (which can be conveniently found along with his other major political essays in Willmoore Kendall Contra Mundum, edited by Nellie D. Kendall, University Press, 1994), Kendall explained why this great work of political philosophy laid out what conservatives ought to be busy conserving: a particularly aristocratic version of majority-rule.  “Publius,” the famed pseudonymous author of The Federalist, teaches

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“[F]or I have not only grown gray, but almost blind in the service of my country.”

On this Memorial Day weekend we do well to reflect on those near perfect displays of patriotic love that evidence the American soldier’s responsibility to defending our constitutional republican government. To be sure, failures recent and ancient abound in the imprudent use of martial force that does not consider its capabilities and limitations, nor its larger connection with the protection of American constitutionalism. American foundations, however, in this regard, provide resources for nobility in the service of the constitutional ideal of the American republic.

Present at the creation,  Amy Kass, Leon Kass, and Diana Schaub remind us in their wonderful volume of American civic education What So Proudly We Hail: The American Soul in Story, Speech, and Song, was General George Washington and his prudential and decisive scuttling of the little-discussed Newburgh Conspiracy of 1783.

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