Public Policy and Governmental Leadership

Origins and Ideas IconMartin Rowe

Technological innovation, the creative destruction of the marketplace, and personal choice all play vital roles in social change. However, pending a better system of social organization and reflecting and initiating change without breakdown or autocracy, we’re stuck with governments framing laws and the judiciary and police enforcing them and punishing those who break them. Governments make decisions about which industries to subsidize and which to tax, and by how much. They determine what is, or is not, in the national interest. Governments in a democratic society are (depending on your viewpoint) either the best expression of the collective will of individual citizens or self-contained entities where the needs of lobbyists, special interests, and politicians are satisfied instead of the will of the people. No doubt you fall somewhere along that spectrum of belief.

It may be hard in this time of political sclerosis, a political system awash in money, and profound splits in the electorate along ethnic, age, regional, and other grounds to imagine that public policy might change in the direction of a vegan America. Certainly, the two-year election cycle, gerrymandered districts, the perpetual scramble to raise money, and the power of lobbyists and “special interests” appear to harden an oppositional politics that stymies long-term policies to recalibrate the economy away from extractive industries and the fossil fuel–based economy, toward healthful eating patterns and increased rights for animals.

It’s true that individual states and big cities are proving more flexible and creative than the federal government—indeed, that may be how change has always come to America. It’s beyond the ambit of Vegan America to determine whether the law and public policy follow the will of the people or direct it (it’s probably some combination of both), but the significance of public policy on animals’ lives and veganism is undeniable—not least in establishing norms and boundaries of acceptable behavior, or entrenching current practices.

It’s my belief that we’re on the cusp of major changes in how certain species, particularly primates, dolphins, elephants, and other “higher” mammals, are viewed by society and within the law. It will soon no longer be seen as an adequate reflection of our obligations toward animals to consider all of them as merely property under the law. By 2050, non-human personhood will be extended to great apes and other species, and what, therefore, will be considered legally permissible and acceptable will change.

These changes, in turn, will alter what is socially acceptable behavior toward animals, which will in turn change laws regarding other animals, and so on. It’s likely that the resistance to providing animals any legal standing and/or to remove them from the category of property under the law is at least partly a consequence of that fear that to do so with domesticated animals, great apes, cetaceans, etc. will be the thin end of the wedge that eventually does the same for animals used for food and clothing, entertainment and zoos, and in experimentation.

The inconsistency of approach to different animals—why a breed of dog in the home is afforded different protections than exactly the same breed of dog in a lab—is only one tine in a multipronged approach that activists might use to create governmental and legal change, and, conversely, how those in government or the law might change how people view animals by enacting and enforcing legislation. All in all, we cannot ignore public policy or give up on government—not least because government and public policy is not a neutral ground that social change agents must colonize but a heavily trafficked and crowded ground of competing interests that are already demanding and ensuring that their issues or industries are subsidized, valorized, and prioritized.

The cabinet of the forty-fifth president of the United States is filled with people who are committed to a fossil-fuel based economy, who favor fast food and intensive animal agriculture, and who do not believe in anthropogenic climate change. To assume blithely that it’s not necessary to deal with government because technology and business will simply make it impossible for government agencies to subsidize old, inefficient industries and hold back new developments for as long as possible feels foolish to me.

There’s a further reason why public policy, laws, and civil society matter. Veganism, which is having its social “moment,” faces the challenge of whether it will only be viewed as a practice for elites with access to money and a range of food choices or a genuine catalyst for and of social change. Municipal, state, and national governments are always going to be the place where the following question will be addressed: What mixture of processed, value-added products (on the one hand) and whole-food, plant-based diet on the other will constitute “veganism,” and what public policy decisions will grow out of that combination—particularly in regard to food security for low-income communities, and the presence in processed (vegan) foods of large amounts of salt, fat, and sugar, which pose a huge problem for public health?

As I suggested in an earlier blog, I’ve encountered animal advocates who care nothing for the healthfulness of their diet, and vegans who care nothing about animal welfare. You can be both and care not a whit for social justice or planetary sustainability. Can veganism—or perhaps we might more accurately call them veganisms—be visualized more broadly and holistically, and how might they fit in with a food policy that is more responsive to peoples’ needs, wherever they fall on the social spectrum? Such a question can be addressed through the next form of social change analysis.