A “Very New Approach” or Just More New Welfarism?

Martin Balluch, an Austrian animal advocate and president of the Association Against Animal Factories in Austria, is circulating an essay that he wrote and that he characterized to me as opening a “very new approach” to the rights/welfare debate.

Balluch’s essay is long and, at places, convoluted, but the basic thesis is really quite simple.

According to Balluch, taking the abolitionist approach and promoting vegan/abolitionist education rather than welfarist regulatory reform “cannot but fail” because, in a speciesist society, “to live vegan costs an enormous amount of energy, so that only a tiny minority will ever have enough motivation and resolve to be able to sustain it.”

So what is the “very new approach” that Balluch proposes?

He argues that we should support welfarist reform. Balluch argues that “it is at least possible” that welfarist regulation will eventually lead to abolition on both an individual and social level. That is, supporting animal welfare reform will, as a psychological matter, lead the individual toward veganism and will, as a political matter, cause the society to move toward abolition.

In short, Balluch is not proposing a “very new approach” at all.

He is merely proposing what I identified as “new welfarism” in my 1996 book, Rain Without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement, and my other writing. New welfarism is the view that there is a causal relationship between animal welfare reform and abolition in that the former will lead to the latter, and is the best (or only) way to achieve abolition. I have argued that new welfarism is problematic both morally and practically.

New welfarism is problematic morally because it involves animal advocates who claim to endorse abolition campaigning for supposedly more “humane” forms of exploitation. This is no different from opposing torture, rape, child molestation, or human slavery and campaigning for more “humane” versions of those forms of exploitation rather than working directly for their abolition. If animal exploitation cannot be morally justified, then animal rights advocates should not be promoting “better” ways of doing something wrong.

As a practical matter, animal welfare simply does not work. Animal welfare provides protection for animal interests only to the extent that it is economically beneficial for us to do so. This should come as no surprise as animals are property; they are economic commodities that have no value except that which we accord to them. Animals are different from the inanimate things we own because, unlike those things, animals are sentient beings who have interests. But it costs money to protect those interests and we are generally willing to “purchase” only that level of protection that is justified by the economic value of the animal property. So, for example, we may require the stunning of a cow before we shackle, hoist, and cut her, but we do that because if we do not, the cow will move, injure slaughterhouse workers, and cause damage to her body that will decrease the quality of her “meat.”

We have had animal welfare laws for 200 years now and there is absolutely no evidence that animal welfare reform leads to the abolition of animal exploitation. Indeed, we are now exploiting more animals in more horrific ways than at any time in human history. Moreover, to the extent that the public believes that animals are being treated more “humanely,” that tends to encourage continued exploitation. At the current time, we are seeing media story after media story about how people who once did not eat flesh or some other animal product have once again started to do so because they believe that animals are being treated better as a result of supposed reforms in animal welfare.

Balluch has asked for my specific reaction to his “very new approach.” I offer the following comments.

Vegan education “cannot but fail”

Balluch argues that educating the public about veganism is a waste of time because it has been tried for 130 years in Austria and it has not worked.

I cannot speak to the situation in Austria, but as a general matter, the animal advocacy movement has never promoted veganism as its clear and unequivocal moral baseline. On the contrary, veganism is portrayed by leading animal advocates, such as Peter Singer, as “fanatical.” Singer talks about the occasional eating of animal products as a “luxury” and argues that we may even have an obligation not to be vegan if it would upset others. The movement actively promotes “happy” meat/animal products and the labeling of corpses and other animal products as “humanely” produced, and gives awards to designers of slaughterhouses. The movement makes a distinction between flesh and other animal products, treating ovo-lacto “vegetarianism” as the default position.

The animal movement, with the exception of pioneers like Donald Watson, has consistently marginalized veganism. It can really affect donations if you tell people that veganism is the least that they can do if they take animal rights seriously. Balluch acknowledges this point. He states that Austrian animal welfare groups raise 30 million euros annually and “[s]ome of those societies actually explicitly promote veganism in their literature. If all animal groups would have to change to purely abolitionist campaigning, they would drastically shrink to the size of vegan societies and would lose all their influence and ability to promote veganism too.” So we cannot promote abolition and veganism because that would decrease donations and end whatever vegan activism is supported by these welfarist groups. Balluch’s reasoning is breathtaking.

But although Balluch would be in error to state that veganism has ever been the baseline of the movement, this error would not affect his analysis because, according to Balluch, even if the entire movement made a commitment to veganism and promoted it as a clear and unequivocal moral baseline, it would not matter. People are simply not going to become vegan because the society is speciesist and it is too difficult for most people to become vegan. The public will simply “go with the flow and live the way of life of least resistance.”

We should, however, not lose hope, according to Balluch, who speculates that “it is at least possible, if not probable, that a person develops psychologically from animal use via animal welfare to animal rights.” That is, if we encourage people to support animal welfare, it is “possible, if not probable” that they will go vegan eventually.

Balluch is unclear as to exactly how this transformation will take place. At points, he appears to maintain that animal welfare regulation will eventually make animal products so expensive that people will have no choice but to go vegan. Putting aside that this scenario assumes that a public that does not care about abolition is going to support incremental regulatory reform that Balluch claims will lead to abolition, welfare regulation, as I explain below, generally increases the economic efficiency of animal exploitation and does not increase production cost. And given the realities of “free-trade,” even if regulation increased production cost and price, cheaper imports would be available to satisfy demand.

At other points, Balluch appears to claim that by supporting welfare reform, people eventually realize that animal use is wrong in itself. That is, if we encourage people to believe that the exploitation of nonhumans is morally acceptable because it is regulated, they will eventually come to see that it is not morally acceptable at all. Why does Balluch think that reinforcing the view that animal use is morally acceptable is going to lead to the evenntual end of animal use? Balluch maintains that welfarist campaigns help to sensitize people to animal suffering. But the overwhelming number of people already accept and have for a good long time accepted that it is morally wrong to impose “unnecessary” suffering on animals. There is no empirical evidence that this has led in an abolitionist direction.

Balluch’s argument for why education “cannot but fail” is not an argument at all. He merely begs the question, claiming that we need to support animal welfare because we need to support animal welfare.

I find it difficult, if not impossible, to believe that if the movement had decided to invest the hundreds of millions (perhaps billions) of dollars that it has spent over the past decades in the U.S. alone in promoting veganism in a clear and unequivocal fashion, rather than in campaigning for welfare reform, that there would not be hundreds of thousands more vegans than there are today. This would provide the foundation for a political movement that could seek meaningful protection for animal interests, including prohibitions on animal use.

Finally, Balluch’s essay provides an excellent example of how animal advocates marginalize the vegan position. Balluch goes on at great length on how difficult it is to be a vegan in a non-vegan society. In any event, as long as animal advocates present veganism as some extreme sacrifice that makes one a “martyr” for the animals, or as “fanatical,” they will not encourage others to go vegan. I have been a vegan for 26 years. I do not regard it as any sacrifice whatsoever and the basics of a vegan diet are available just about anywhere. I am no more tempted to eat animal products because I live in a speciesist society than I am tempted to do anything else that I regard as fundamentally morally wrong.

And even if Balluch is right that people will not always adhere to their commitment to veganism, that should not determine what our message ought to be. The fact that racism, sexism, and heterosexism are still rampant in our culture does not mean that we should alter the message and condone these forms of discrimination because many people still engage in them.

The irrelevance of the public

Balluch claims that the public is irrelevant to the struggle for animal rights because the conflict is “between the animal rights movement and animal industries.” The general public is irrelevant. The public will simply “go with the flow and live the way of life of least resistance.”

Although it is certainly the case that capitalism thrives on manufacturing desires on the part of the public, the notion that “animal industries” are the primary engine for animal exploitation is absurd. Animal industries exist because the public demands animal products. If the public stopped demanding animal products, those who have capital invested in animal businesses would move that capital elsewhere.

There is little, if any, empirical evidence that the public would tolerate any real challenge to its ability to consume animal products. The public may support window-dressing reforms that do not raise prices in any significant way, particularly when cheaper products can be imported, but Balluch is deluding himself if he thinks that his strategy of legislating veganism through welfarist reform would, even if it were possible as a practical matter, be accepted by the public before the public is convinced of the immorality of animal use. Moreover, the notion that the animal rights movement can, without the active support of the public, exert the pressure needed for any meaningful change indicates a profound lack of understanding of the political process.

The economic effect of animal welfare reform

Balluch claims that “it is at least possible – even if we haven’t provided data of its likelihood yet – that a society develops politically from animal usage via animal welfare to animal rights.” He assumes that welfare reform weakens animal industries and decreases the demand for animal products by making them more expensive and causing people to turn to vegan alternatives.

Balluch fails to understand the nature of animal exploitation and welfare reform.

Welfare reform does not as a general matter weaken animal industries. That is because welfare reform generally makes animal exploitation more economically efficient and actually strengthens animal industries. For example, alternatives to the gestation crates and veal crates have been shown to increase producer profit.

The current campaign in the United States to replace the electrical stunning of poultry with “controlled atmosphere killing” is based explicitly on the economic benefits that producers and consumers will enjoy. According to the Humane Society of the United States, gassing poultry “results in cost savings and increased revenues by decreasing carcass downgrades, contamination, and refrigeration costs; increasing meat yields, quality, and shelf life; and improving worker conditions.”

According to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the electric stunning method of slaughter “lowers product quality and yield” because birds suffer broken bones and the process results in contamination dangerous to human health. The electric stunning method also “increases labor costs” in various ways. PETA argues that “CAK increases product quality and yield” because broken bones, bruising, and hemorrhaging are supposedly eliminated, contamination is reduced, “shelf-life of meat” is increased, and “‘more tender breast meat’” is produced. PETA also claims that “CAK lowers labor costs” by reducing the need for certain inspections, reducing accidents, and lowering employee turnover. CAK provides “other economic benefits” to the poultry industry by allowing producers to save money on energy costs, and by reducing by-product waste and the need to use water.

Moreover, producers can earn a market premium by labeling their meat as “humane” and perhaps even get the support of animal welfare organizations who sponsor or support various labeling schemes.

Welfare reform does not affect consumer demand for a number of reasons. First, most welfare reforms do not result in a price increase sufficient to affect demand. Second, to the extent that a price increase is significant, consumers do not switch to vegan alternatives but seek less expensive animal products. So if beef prices go up for whatever reason, consumers buy more poultry, pork, lamb, or fish. They do not buy tofu. Third, given the fact that much of the world is now involved in “free trade” arrangements of one sort or another, an increase in the price of a commodity in one country will only cause cheaper imports to enter the market.

Balluch’s examples

The examples Balluch provides to support his position fail to do so.

His primary example involves the Austrian egg industry. Balluch claims that Austria has banned battery cages ahead of the supposed European Union deadline of 2012 and that egg production has dropped by 35%. I was unable to find any support for this statement. According to Statistics Austria, overall egg production in Austria was 89,271 tons in 2005 and 90,613 tons in 2006. That is an increase of 1.5% Of this total production, 3,510 tons of eggs in 2005 and 3,902 tons in 2006 were for hatching purposes. Subtracting these numbers from the overall production figure, the production of eggs was 85,761 tons in 2005 and 86,711 tons in 2006. Per capita consumption of eggs in Austria has gone from 233 in 2005 to 236 in 2006. Also, it appears that Austria is importing more eggs as well. The production numbers for 2007 are not yet available on Statistics Austria. I do not know where Balluch got his figure about a 35% reduction in egg production, but such a claim is not supported by the statistics I found.

Moreover, in certain respects, the level of production of eggs in Austria is irrelevant. Austria is part of the European Union. If the price of eggs increases significantly in Austria, or if the production of eggs in Austria does not meet the demand for eggs (which would be the case if Balluch were correct in saying that egg production had decreased by 35%), eggs will be imported from other EU countries that still have conventional batteries. Although the EU has purported to ban the battery cage as of 2012, the notion that all the EU countries are going to comply by that date is more than unrealistic. In addition, the EU Directive allows for “enriched” cages, which are, in essence, battery cages that are condemned even by moderate welfarist organizations. These can continue to be used even if all EU countries were to comply with the Directive by 2012. Although Balluch claims that Austria has banned the “enriched” cage as well, another portion of his website states that “enriched” cages built before January 1, 2005 can be used in Austria for 15 years from their first usage.

Finally, Balluch assumes that “cage-free” or “barn egg” eggs provide a significantly better life for the hens. This is a myth. Take a look at the excellent materials (1,2) put out by Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary on “free-range” eggs.

Balluch offers several other examples. He cites the Austrian ban on wild animals in circuses. The problem, of course, is that domesticated animals are still permitted to be used in Austrian circuses and Balluch states that “horses, camels, cattle, pigs and dogs” continue to be used in circuses. Perhaps he thinks that there is a moral difference between the use of non-domesticated animals and the use of domesticated animals. I disagree.

Balluch cites the Austrian prohibition on fur farming but he acknowledges that the ban “did not reduce the amount of fur being sold in Austria since the furriers just switched to imports.” Balluch’s own observation refutes his general thesis that the public is irrelevant, that education is a waste of time, that the problem of animal exploitation is the conflict between animal advocates and animal industries, and that public will simply “go with the flow and live the way of life of least resistance.” Austria banned fur farms. Fur farmers were put out of business, but the sale of furs in Austria did not decline. This proves in a rather compelling way that if the public is not educated and the demand for animal products persists, animals will continue to be exploited. The fact that the actual killing of animals may take place somewhere else is irrelevant.

Balluch claims that Austria has what he apparently regards as unique statutory and constitutional laws that protect animals from killing “however painlessly and ‘humanely’ conducted:”

  • §6 (1) Animal law: It is forbidden to kill any animal for no good reason
  • §222 (3) Criminal law: It is forbidden to kill vertebrate animals for no good reason
  • Constitution: The state protects the life of animals as cohabitants of humans
  • Balluch ignores the fact that using animals for institutionalized exploitation constitutes a “good reason” to kill animals as far as the law is concerned and that applies to Austria, which, as far as I am aware, has not become a vegan country. He is apparently unaware that many anticruelty laws have similar provisions and Austria’s law is not unique in any sense.

    Balluch mentions the 2005 ban on using nonhuman great apes in experiments in Austria. Putting aside that Austrian vivisectors had largely stopped using great apes before the ban was enacted, the notion that great apes are more “like us” than other nonhumans and are therefore entitled to greater legal protection reinforces speciesism and does not dismantle it. I am certainly glad that vivisectors in Austria will not be able to use nonhuman great apes for experiments in the future but I caution animal advocates against campaigning for any legislation on the ground that some nonhumans are more equal than others because of their similarity to humans. Sentience is the only criterion that is required for personhood.

    “Two-track activism”=”Wrong-track activism”

    Balluch’s analysis is similar to that of other new welfarists. For example, in a recent essay being circulated by the “Vegan” Outreach, Norm Phelps promotes what he calls “two-track activism,” which involves supporting welfarist reform. According to Phelps, this reform makes people “much more receptive to a vegan message.” He claims that those who support the abolitionist approach favor theoretical consistency over practical results. Like Balluch, Phelps just assumes that welfarist reform damages industry. Like Balluch, he does not appear to have the slightest clue about the economics of welfarist regulation.

    For example, Phelps accepts the claim that the HSUS campaign involving the gestation crate is an example of an effort that will “‘economically cripple’” meat producers. Perhaps Phelps ought to read the the HSUS Report on gestation crates, which claims that European studies indicate that:

    [s]ow productivity is higher in group housing than in individual crates, as a result of reduced rates of injury and disease, earlier first estrus, faster return to estrus after delivery, lower incidence of stillbirths, and shorter farrowing times. Group systems employing ESF [electronic sow feeder] are particularly cost-effective. . . .Conversion from gestation crates to group housing with ESF marginally reduces production costs and increases productivity.

    HSUS cites studies showing:

    that the total cost per piglet sold is 0.6-percent lower in group ESF systems, while the income to the piglet farmer is 8-percent higher, because of increased productivity….that, compared to gestation crates, group housing with ESF decreased labor time 3 percent and marginally increased income per sow per year….[and that] [s]avings at the sow farm can be passed onto the fattening farm, where the cost per unit weight decreases 0.3 percent. It is only this cost change that would be reflected in the retail price of pork.

    HSUS concludes:

    It is likely that producers who adopt group housing with ESF could increase demand for their products or earn a market premium. A 2003 poll found that 77 percent of Iowa consumers would buy pork products from food companies whose suppliers raise and process their hogs only under humane and environmentally sound conditions.

    Moreover, Balluch and the other new welfarists do not appear to understand that we live in a world of limited resources. Every dollar and every minute that we spend promoting animal welfare reform makes fewer resources available for creative, nonviolent vegan education. It’s not a matter of “two-track” activism when one track is very clearly the wrong one.

    Finally, Balluch claims that I endorse incremental welfarist reform in Rain Without Thunder, but that I am too limited as to what I consider to be abolitionist reform. His comments suggest that I am in favor of welfarist reform and that is incorrect. In my book, I argued that animal advocates ought to focus on veganism and nonviolent educational efforts in order to undermine the property paradigm. I argued that if advocates wanted to pursue reform, they should at least pursue prohibitions of significant institutional components of exploitation in the context of a campaign that recognized the inherent value of nonhumans and was explicitly presented to the public as part of an overall effort to abolish all animal use.

    Balluch’s proposal, it should be noted, does not even meet these criteria. On one hand, he claims that a welfarist reform “is a step towards animal rights if it significantly damages animal industries.” Such a campaign would not necessarily meet the criteria that I presented in Rain Without Thunder. On the other hand, he appears to claim that animal advocates should support any reform, including “humane” labels for “happy meat,” because any welfarist reform presumptively provides more support for animal welfare which, according to Balluch, will lead in the direction of animal rights. These campaigns do not only not incrementally reduce the property status of nonhumans; they reinforce it.

    Conclusion

    In sum, there is nothing new in Balluch’s approach. He is merely proposing the new welfarist paradigm, which has dominated the movement in the United States and Britain since the 1990s, and which has now apparently been exported to other parts of Europe.

    The notion that we must promote welfarism in order to undermine it is absurd and should be rejected by those who care both about promoting a morally meaningful message and about practical results.

    The new welfarist approach facilitates neither. The abolitionist approach facilitates both.

    Being a vegan is not, as Balluch and others suggest, a matter of painful self-denial and great sacrifice. It is easy, better for your health, and better for the planet. And, most importantly, it is the application of the principle of the abolition of the exploitation of nonhuman animals to your daily life.

    If you are not willing to be a vegan, just face the fact that you do not care enough to do something that you have the power to do–decide what goes into your mouth, what you wear, or what you use on your body. Don’t waste your time and money supporting welfarist organizations that tell you that some animal abuse is worse than others and if you will just send them a contribution, they will fix it for you.

    No, by being vegan you will not have solved the world’s problems. You will not remove yourself completely from the animal exploitation that pervades every aspect of our lives and is present even in the surfaces of our roads, house paints, plastics, and many other things. But if the majority of us got animal products off our plates, and otherwise stopped consuming them, industry would very quickly find alternatives to cheap animal by-products.

    Gary L. Francione
    © 2008 Gary L. Francione