On Sunday, the Washington Post ran a page-one story describing a milk producer’s campaign against the federal government’s milk cartel, which prevents more efficient producers from undercutting government-established prices. The tone of the Post’s article indicated disapproval of the cartel and approval of free-market competition. It’s amusing, therefore, to see the front page of today’s Post advocate precisely the opposite approach. This time, the subject is food safety, where the Post reports the nation is in crisis because there’s too much competition among regulators and not enough central planning. Citing recent bacteria infections of onions and spinach, the Post’s thesis is “The patchwork of federal and state regulations that is supposed to ensure food safety has become less effective as the nation’s produce supply has grown increasingly industrial.” The Post cites numerous self-regulation and private inspection services, but ultimately the solution is more government regulation. This despite the Post’s acknowledgment that “government rules can take years to put in place” and, what’s left unacknowledged, the fact that bacteria “outbreaks” occur in even in industries that are strictly regulated such as beef.
Most of the article is spent lamenting the lack of a single regulatory regime. Yet such a regime was the subject of the Post’s scorn not 24 hours ago. In the case of the milk cartel, it seemed obvious even to the Post that the government’s suppression of price competition harmed consumers. But when it comes to product safety, competition is supposedly the enemy. That’s impossible to reconcile. If the government is capable of designing an ideal standard of product safety, then it should also know what the correct price of said product is. Conversely, if the market is capable of determining the price of a good or service, it is also capable of providing product safety. Certainly, the market’s track record far exceeds the government’s in both areas.