Social Philosophy and Policy

Research Article

Regulation of Foods and Drugs and Libertarian Ideals: Perspectives of a Fellow-Traveler*

Daniel D. Polsbya1

a1 Law, Northwestern University

For one with libertarian sympathies, the official regulation of foods and drugs is presumptively a bad thing. One is most accustomed to seeing the argument in debates about legalizing marijuana and other hedonic drugs. And it remains a very good if by now well-trafficked question, which will be more well-trafficked still by the time this essay ends, why government should be in the business of telling people what sorts of chemical moodenhancers they may take. But as the criminologist James Jacobs has pointed out, to ask this question is to put in play matters far larger and more important than marijuana. What business is it of government to say what medicines may be sold and by whom they may be sold? Why should certain chemical agents be available to willing buyers only with a doctor's scrip, and other agents, such as unproved drugs or devices, forbidden to all, even with medical permission? If libertarians answer these questions impatiently, then admirers of the administrative welfare state (“statists”) will be happy to play rope-a-dope with them, chattering on about the endearing eccentricities of libertarians' assumptions and avoiding the challenge to articulate and defend their own increasingly shabby-looking principles. Those principles are much in need of defense. Food and drug laws are among the most well-established offices of regulatory government. They are complicated, hypertechnical, mysterious, and expensive to administer and maintain. One is entitled to suspect that a number of them are carried on more out of habit and routine than out of any authentic conviction that they are the best way, or among the better ways, to provide for the welfare of citizens.


* Thanks are owed to the research assistance of Kent Pflederer, Nathan Linn, and James Fitzpatrick, M.D. Thanks also to several colleagues for helpful comments, in particular Robert W. Bennett, Anthony D'Amato, Mayer Freed, Andy Koppelman, and Gary Lawson, all of whom are held harmless hereby. Acknowledgment is also due to the Kirkland & Ellis Research Fund, which subsidizes the author's research activities.