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Libertarians are against all (or at least the vast majority of) government regulation. But there seem to be some things for which government regulation is necessary. Like the antibiotic resistance caused by the massive use of antibiotics in agriculture. As far as I understand it, the reason the amount of antibiotics used in agriculture is not a lot higher is the government regulation. If not for the government regulation, we would have probably already had a pandemic of a superbacteria.

When asked about what their solution to global warming is, libertarians generally respond that the free market (nuclear energy and renewable energy getting cheaper) will solve the problem faster and with less collateral damage than government regulation will. And that is probably true for global warming. But I fail to see how it can be true for antibiotic resistance. Sure, we will probably soon have lab-grown meat, but that won't address antibiotic resistance. The biggest problem are the egg industry (because the use of antibiotics there is truly massive, around 70% of all antibiotics are used in the egg industry) and the vineyards (because the antibiotics stay in the ground, causing antibiotic resistance forever), and lab-grown meat will do nothing about those things.

So, what do libertarians think about that problem?

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    What scientific proof exists that the current restrictions are helpful? This is implied in your question but there's no references to scientific publications to support it. It seems like antibiotics are still used in large quantities - what proof do we have that using even more of them would make a huge difference? Jul 3, 2023 at 14:34
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    @JonathanReez ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9133924 frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fvets.2022.1000457/full ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9133924 Need any more? I even saw one that came from the cattle industry addressing this issue, after first acknowledging the pbm. Jul 3, 2023 at 17:54
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    @JonathanReez So, does that mean that the Libertarian answer is not to regulate? Because the general scientific assessment seems to be that excessive, prophylactic, antibiotic veterinary prescription is an ongoing issue. if you have an issue you disagree, one can either disprove it. Or choose to ignore it. Claiming that not doing anything is somehow different from ignoring it seems a bit specious. This brings us back to the old Libertarian bugbears: negative externalities (ignore them) and overfocus on the present value of things vs their future costs. Jul 3, 2023 at 18:17
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    @StuartF Libertarian says what I want matters, and hypothetical future generations can't overrule that. When it comes to global warming, seems a lot of folk are Libertarians then ;-) Libertarians are a bit out there in that regards, true. But of a lot of political tendencies are all for eat cake now, let others diet later. Look no further than pension reforms. Jul 4, 2023 at 0:50
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    @Italian, I can't resist pointing out the words "voluntary ban" in the report. That's essentially the libertarian approach, isn't it? If it were so simple, there would be no problem. I guess for the purposes of the Q, we should assume that cutting the use of antibiotics does have substantial [at least short-time] loss.
    – Zeus
    Jul 4, 2023 at 3:35

6 Answers 6

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So, what do libertarians think about that problem?

Most libertarians hold nuanced views and don't see the world as entirely black-and-white, just like moderate members of most other ideological movements. I.e. proponents of socialism don't necessarily support the complete elimination of wage differences, they just want to reduce them compared to the status quo. So here's a moderate libertarian take on your question, from "Bleeding Heart Libertarians":

Libertarians are rightly skeptical of government intervention in many arenas of life. But some collective harms are so grave, and the alternatives so grim, that governments should do something.

So what should they do? One of the least controversial moves governments can make is to require a prescription by physicians before consumers can take antibiotics, and before farmers can administer them to livestock. As I’ve argued elsewhere, antibiotics are probably the only drug that should require a prescription, since unlike almost any other drugs, the widespread use of antibiotics can impose severe public health risks in the form of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Yet many governments around the world impose draconian penalties on the use and sale of recreational drugs, while allowing over-the-counter sales of antibiotics.

A more controversial (but I think appropriate) move is for governments to impose Pigovian taxes or, more modestly, user fees on the use of antibiotics. The rationale is that we should curb the low-value consumption of antibiotics, and use the revenue generated by a fee to compensate victims or facilitate the development of new ways of diagnosing and treating bacterial infections, especially those resistant to existing antibiotics. In particular, revenue from user fees could be used to fund basic science research, which often leads to scientific insights that are not patentable, but which have tremendous social value that pharmaceutical firms can translate into novel treatments.

Hayek showed why we should use prices rather than government dictates to allocate scarce resources when externalities are minimal. But what about cases in which prices don’t reflect most of the social costs and benefits of our consumption choices? Jason Brennan and Jessica Flanigan have written compelling papers about why libertarians should support some vaccine mandates. We should worry about antibiotic resistance for the same reasons. If libertarians ignore these issues, the “solutions” that emerge in policy debates may be worse than the problems they are supposed to solve.

So the answer is to either restrict antibiotics or price them at a level which reflects the negative externalities generated by their use.

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There is a very broad range of libertarians who will answer very differently to this question.

An extremist libertarian would probably say that it's just natural selection at play. Profits and the choice to do whatever you want is more important than the general good.

A strong libertarian would probably ask for the external costs of using antibiotics to be factored into the price of using them. E.g. calculate how much damage is done to the public by the overuse of antibiotics and put that as a tax on antibiotics. That way, anyone can still choose to soak their chicken in antibiotics, if they are happy to spend enough money on it. They would probably argue that these costs would bring down the overuse of antibiotics significantly.

A moderate libertarian would probably accept that in some circumstances hard regulation is required, and antibiotics overuse could warrant a law forbidding that.

In general, there are quite different motivations and facets to libertarianism and there is not one broad "Libertarians would do this in that situation" thing.

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Antibiotic resistance can be viewed as a pollution problem that is old and known. In the Libertarian view, excessive and dangerous pollution is an act of aggression, just like theft, slavery or rape. This does not need to be permissible. As described on the Libertarianism.org website:

(...) the polluter sends unwanted and unbidden pollutants-​-​from smoke to nuclear fallout to sulfur oxides-​-through the air and into the lungs of innocent victims, as well as onto their material property. All such emanations which injure person or property constitute aggression against the private property of the victims.

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It depends. People seem to forget that plenty of libertarians and even anarchists believe in a nightwatchman state: a state that does not have a monopoly on violence and meets the minimum requirement set by John Locke in his book Two Treatises of Government to be considered a government. If anything, you would have a government similar to FEJUVE or Rojava where people would come together for a democratic solution and probably put some restrictions if the overuse of antibiotics messes with the individual rights of others (which I believe germs being so resistant to antibiotics that it causes a pandemic would count). There would still be some kind of voluntarist militia or group to help enforce this and even some business owners or traders might be praised if they come up with other effective methods for protecting their crops without antibiotics (some social libertarian communities have used alternative organic solutions other than antibiotics to protect their crops while still having enough yield to trade and provide food for the community).

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  • The fact still remains that there are those individuals who pursue strategies in certain situations that are harmful to the common good, and in those situations all others have to transfer the cost back to the individual by making them suffer. If you end up saying there must be a state, and that state must set policy, balance rights, run a system of criminal justice and enforcement, and so on, then how do so-called libertarians ultimately differ from say Stalin, when the opening gambit of most libertarians is that they are against the state?
    – Steve
    Jul 9, 2023 at 13:05
  • @Steve The fact that you have a say in the state without having a monopoly on violence and have a society like FEJUVE where laws are enforced by volunteers instead of people who get special powers & privileges that put you far about the average person? Having a government does not equal Stalin and, as I just stated, many libertarians are against 'the state' as in they are against governments with a monopoly on violence that instead of having policing by consent - as described by Sir Robert Peel - you have representatives that legally get away with things that would put the average Joe in jail.
    – Tyler Mc
    Jul 9, 2023 at 18:40
  • @Steve Again, all I am saying is that it depends. Some libertarians have a solution of creating a government without the strict vertical hierarchy of states like Stalinist Russia or many modern states while still having a form of governance (because again, not all libertarians just want no government whatsoever), which shows at least some libertarians have an answer. Sure, there might be others that have no answer because they just want no government whatsoever or some with a different solution, but this is one solution provided by nightwatchman state libertarians
    – Tyler Mc
    Jul 9, 2023 at 18:43
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The Libertarian solution to any problem — generally speaking — is that a radically free market entails a rise in innovation that will ultimately solve problems that earlier practices create. They don't try to specify what those innovations might be, because future innovation is by definition unknown in the present. Instead, they assert that solutions are imaginable, and that some imagined solution will ineluctably be realized or manifested as soon as it becomes sufficiently profitable.

In this case, no one will care that antibiotic resistant bacteria are evolving until antibiotic resistant bacteria become a sufficient threat that people are willing to pay for a solution. It makes no difference from a Libertarian perspective whether farmers and ranchers pay because their crops and animals are threatened, or whether regular humans pay because their lives are threatened. What matters is the development of a profit motive such that finding a solution will make someone a great deal of money.

Libertarianism - though Libertarians would be unlikely to acknowledge it — is closer to mysticism than political or economic philosophy. One doesn't look to it for practical solutions; one merely has faith that practical solutions will always arise when one firmly adheres to Libertarian principles.

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    – Philipp
    Jul 6, 2023 at 7:57
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Libertarianism entails a specific set of core principles, but it is not a single fixed interpretation of those principles - just like with any other political movement or ideology. An individual self-identified Libertarian's approach to the problem would depend on specific facts available to that individual, and on the individual's understanding of those facts.

I do not count myself as a Libertarian (at most, very tangentially adjacent), but I have spoken with enough people who do that I can imagine a few reactions. Rather than propose a specific solution, I want to lay out the factors that I would expect Libertarians to consider when weighing their options.

Coordination problems

To the extent that government regulation is tolerated under Libertarianism, the purpose of such regulation is to solve coordination problems. There are two classic examples:

  • The tragedy of the commons: each producer of goods would prefer to exploit a natural resource maximally in order to maximize profit and avoid being out-competed. However, if everyone does this, that resource is depleted in a way that causes lasting harm to everyone.

  • The boycott: each consumer (or at least, many consumers) of a product wish to discipline a producer for some ethical failing (never mind how deontological or consequential the underlying ethics may be), by switching to a competitor. However, a large number of them would have to agree (and commit) in order for the producer to be meaningfully impacted, whereas each individual would have to pay the competitor a significantly higher price for ostensibly the same good.

Both of these can be viewed as a sort of multi-player Prisoner's Dilemma, which neatly enough explains why a free market fails to solve the problems automatically. Individuals optimizing for personal outcomes steer away from the optimal global equilibrium.

However, this weakness is also a strength: since it is difficult to coordinate, it is also difficult for producers to collude, and thus eliminate market competition (which would naturally raise prices to the point that buyers can bear, as now their only other options are to go without or produce the good themselves). Therefore, a Libertarian requires a compelling case to be made that the coordination problem is a real problem in a specific situation.

Forms of market interference

Taking the object example of eggs from chickens raised with vs. without antibiotics. A Libertarian might take the failure of boycotts as evidence that people do not see a real problem - "if you aren't willing to spend $X more for eggs, how much do you really care?".

On the flip side, in the "tragedy of the commons" framing, we might try to convince Libertarians that antibiotic use in egg farming is an externality: that is, using antibiotics constitutes harm to "the commons", in the form of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The natural form of regulation to deal with this is a Pigouvian tax. Since measuring an individual farm's production of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, their relative level of resistance etc. would be infeasible, naturally such a tax would be on the antibiotics themselves.

However, before such a measure could be implemented, there would have to be satisfactory evidence of the scale of the problem. While the problem could be broken down in a variety of ways, probably the bottom line would be - how common is it for antibiotic-resistant bacteria from eggs to result in sickness/injury/death to the human population? How strong is the evidence that this problem would become bigger over time, and by how much? Do these bacteria spread away from the farm - that is, does their mere existence increase the chance that salmonella contamination elsewhere in the world will be from an antibiotic-resistant strain?

And what other mitigations are possible? Perhaps there are smarter dosing regimens, for example. Or perhaps there are more cost-effective ways to protect the hens from salmonella infection. And then, a Libertarian might well propose to do away with the American regulation to wash eggs in the production chain. Which brings us to...

Technology

Markets don't only exist to discover prices, but to lower them (in real terms) over time - equivalently, to enable people to purchase more and better things year over year. That is essentially what economic growth consists of, and the reason why capitalism's advocates praise it so highly: because of the goods we have today that we didn't in yesteryear.

So, rather than raising prices on the commons-destroying option, it would be preferable to make the commons-preserving option more economically competitive. It should be noted that a Pigouvian subsidy doesn't really count here; the money for it would have to come from somewhere - i.e., from taxes on something else, which require a separate justification. Aside from that, a subsidy is harder to argue for in a Libertarian framework because it comes across more strongly as favouritism from an already-distrusted government. A Libertarian would need strong evidence that such a measure would actually address a meaningful externality, and not also cause its own problems. (Indeed, I have heard many argue that the corn subsidy in the US results in rampant misuse of the crop.)

An optimistic Libertarian might therefore expect the problem to solve itself, by way of opportunists looking to reduce the cost of antibiotic-free eggs through technology. That could include developing things like

  • cheaper vaccinations against salmonella for hens
  • cheaper detection mechanisms for salmonella-contaminated eggs
  • better treatments to protect eggs (perhaps something like irradiation rather than washing, to avoid breaking down the natural membrane)

A really cheap, reliable salmonella detector could also be marketed to the consumer, as a way to detect spoilage (some people are happy to let eggs sit around in the fridge for weeks, after all).

Finally, I'd like to argue that lab-grown meat, if it became inexpensive and desirable enough, actually would mitigate the issue. This is because consumers would shift their preferences towards lab-grown meat and away from other sources of animal protein (while overall consumer demand is often thought of as insatiable, this doesn't apply so much to food, as we have limited stomach capacity and suffer negative health effects from obesity). This would lower demand for eggs etc., either reducing competitive pressure to produce more or eventually even making them no longer a commercially viable product.

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    The suggestion that "since it is difficult to coordinate, it is also difficult for producers to collude" makes very little sense. A crowd of thousands of individuals with vastly different motives is not at all comparable to a market of several, a dozen if lucky, more likely less, in many cases only two competitors. Active collusion is not even necessary for the producers, they simply can choose not to undercut and maintain higher prices together, knowing the others will do the same, so that they all have higher profits.
    – Nij
    Jul 5, 2023 at 22:53
  • @Nij, agreed. Some thinkers seem to believe that bosses are brainless - that they are not capable of extrapolating forwards to understand how engaging in competition will cause their own mutual ruin (particularly whenever the state will not allow the competition to conclude in monopoly, so they cannot win by defeating all others), and therefore they desist from competition. There does not need to be explicit collusion - a unilateral increase in price alone is sufficient to signal to others that you have ceased to compete, and they can then follow by increasing their prices. (1/2)
    – Steve
    Jul 9, 2023 at 13:26
  • Moreover, if a "defector" emerges in this market who won't play ball and seeks common ruin, their bankers will simply pull the plug on them. They will say "your business behaviour is hurting the profitability of the other businesses I bankroll, therefore we are calling in your loans/won't supply you with capital". Again there's no necessary conspiracy between multiple people - a single banker is capable of pulling the strings and of appreciating the general nature of the situation and how to harness it to wring maximum profits. (2/2)
    – Steve
    Jul 9, 2023 at 13:27

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