Who’s Going to Make Sure the Salt Isn’t Poison?

I had a conversation about fifteen years ago with a colleague from Seville. We sat in a restaurant in Charlottesville, Virginia, as she expounded on the dangers of economic freedom and defended what seemed to me like the divinely ordained need for government regulation. I was perplexed. “That’s not my tradition and it’s not my experience,” I said. But she was unflappable. To this day I’m not convinced she has any understanding of the proper function of a government, and to be honest, I suspect she never will.

The memory of that conversation sticks with me for two reasons.

First, my friend’s an expert on the literature of the Spanish Golden Age, and a much better one than me. But for that reason, and having studied the School of Salamanca myself, I now think in retrospect that a Spaniard with her education should know that government can’t be the panacea she wants it to be.

Readers familiar with Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quijote de la Mancha (1605/15) will recall that when Sancho Panza finally governs the Isle of Barataria he performs better than expected. But his role is circumscribed; he’s mostly a judge who decides a series of cases. Otherwise, he refuses—or learns to refuse—to meddle in the lives of the citizens of his republic. After thinking on it, he sets free a young man arrested for being out after curfew and prancing about in women’s clothing. He orders money returned to its rightful owners; but he offers little more than advice to all the people who visit his court seeking reparations for wrong doings. He sanctions a whore who robs her client, and he tells the latter to think twice when choosing whores. Another time, a man petitions the governor for a subsidy to help him marry off his ugly daughter. Sancho calls him a “merciless bastard” and threatens to crack open his skull with a chair. Then there’s the case of Doctor Pedro Recio de Mal Agüero, “natural de Tirteafuera,” who tries to regulate Sancho’s diet. It’s for his own good. But the governor wants what he wants; so, he fires the court doctor (see DQ 2.47).

But we all approach literature in our own way, right? Fiction can only await us at the crossroads of two imaginations. Who am I to insist on correct interpretations in a field of study so roundly devoid of simple explanations, and to a colleague no less?

The other reason I’m still marked by that conversation at the Guadalajara restaurant in Charlottesville is more serious. Aurora’s mental habit explains a lot. It reflects an anti-capitalist bias that remains so stubborn in its ignorance that it’s unlikely to find its way into the light of reason anytime soon. Moreover, her mindset has long been the default position among the intellectual elite in Europe and Iberoamerica, and that’s had debilitating consequences. Wallace Sayer famously pointed out that academics bluster on about revolutions because they themselves are so irrelevant in real life. More wary of the impact of their particularly bad ideas, Thomas Sowell noted that they develop the habit of promoting these because they never have to deal with the results.

Finally, Aurora’s views helped me understand that I’ve naively underestimated the degree to which positive opinions about free enterprise, personal liberty, and individualism are minority positions in the Hispanic world. I’m guessing that I’ve always miscalculated by several orders of magnitude—perhaps by a factor of 10,000. I’m also familiar enough with colleagues from other parts of the world to venture that this ratio isn’t different in South Africa, France, or Pakistan. This is another way that the diversity mantra in higher education underwrites a coalition of cosmopolitan leftists. Promoting the humanistic study of other cultures, languages, and histories imports a demographic red shift, allowing domestic professorial and administrative activists to continue to ignore and repress rational debate and analysis in fields like economics, politics, and sociology. I wonder, do American professors who live and work in other countries countervail this transmission at its points of origin? To the degree that they do, they must be minorities both at home and abroad.

Aurora proceeded to pick up every object on the table between us. One after another: fork, napkin, glass of water, basket of chips, itty-bitty bowl of salsa ranchera, a lime, a shaker of salt, my margarita. As she did this, she asked a series of rhetorical questions: “Who’s going to make sure this fork has been washed? Who’s going to make sure this napkin hasn’t been on the floor? Who’s going to make sure this water is drinkable? Who’s going to make sure these chips are made from corn and not sawdust? Who’s going to make sure this salsa doesn’t have salmonella? Who’s going to make sure this lime doesn’t give me E. coli? Who’s going to make sure this pepper is real? Who’s going to make sure the salt isn’t poison?”

In her mind, the answer in each case was “a government regulator.”

I’m not sure how to tell if pepper is real, but I doubt the government can help me figure that out.

I’m pretty sure I’ve made that list of questions longer than it was, but I can’t overstate my amazement at the ease with which Aurora passed from one threatening object to another while seated in the middle of a terrific restaurant bustling with people on a Friday night. Guadalajara serves really, really good Tex-Mex—beefy, greasy, cheesy (like me!)—so I was in my element, and I took offense at my personal utopia of tastes and smells being turned into a hellish carnival.

Low-temperature electron micrograph of a cluster of E. coli bacteria, magnified 10,000 times — Wikipedia

The real answer to every one of her questions, of course, was that the people who produce, transport, and sell those products are the ones who will ensure their quality and make certain they don’t kill me. Indeed, they’re more likely to make sure I live than some government boob. If I die from contaminated goat cheese, that government boob won’t be held accountable. His agency won’t fire him or replace him. More likely he’ll declare a public health crisis, pretend to be a detective, and come down hard on the restaurant in question. Then he’ll pivot onto the idea that goat cheese is unsafe and demand more money so he can study the problem and hire more government boobs to regulate and protect us from it. Those who claim to save us from life’s dangers rarely pay the price for their failures. Concerning my preference for corn not diluted by sawdust, I’m guessing my own tastebuds and market competitors will expose any attempts to cut corners in unsafe ways. I’m not sure how to tell if pepper is real, but I doubt the government can help me figure that out.

On the other hand, if I die from contaminated goat cheese, lawyers will extract devastating sums of money from the restaurant in question, not to mention from the cursed cheesemaker and the poor goatherds. Lawyers are the most vilified heroes in this system. They’re the heavies, the enforcers who’ll descend on my cadaver like flies on manure—with or without E. coli. They’ll scour it for signs of reckless endangerment, and everyone involved will rue the day they mishandled my goat cheese. That way, too, the restaurant and its infinite suppliers will think twice about the next time they try to murder hundreds of paying customers with poisoned salt.

Aurora’s conspiracies boggle the mind if you think about them. From her point of view, so much evil threatens everyday consumers that it’s a wonder anyone in this world ever gets a product or service without suffering injury or death. To her, survivors of the murderousness of capitalism owe our lives to either an astonishing degree of luck or else the Herculean efforts of those all-knowing government superheroes who watch over us day-in and day-out. Aurora doesn’t think it’s luck—we’re in the blessed custody of bureaucratic angels.

I assume it was my life as a Texan that left me so discombobulated by Aurora’s perspective.

The scale of fear and evil she saw stalking the socioeconomic system in which I’d been reared had never occurred to me. I still find it hard to imagine how people who think like her summon the courage to leave their houses. How do they ever get behind the wheel of a car? How do they not defer to authority regarding all the paths to take in life? How do they avoid just following others around like a flock of sheep? I hold that society requires humans to think and act on our own, not imbibe and follow the orders of others. The more I reflect on it, the more I think that conversation explains the relative lack of wealth and progress in Spain and Latin America when compared to the United States. “Hay normas” remains one of the most recognizable expressions in Iberoamerica.

Fifteen years before the French Revolution, Louis XVI was informed by Malesherbes that his own government’s centralization had enervated the French citizenry. Alexis de Tocqueville found the minister’s report worthy of an extended quotation in the first volume of Democracy in America (1835): “the deliberations of the inhabitants of a village are declared invalid if they have not been authorized by an administrator … the community is deprived of the power of exercising its rights. These, Sire, are the means by which all municipal spirit has been stifled in France and by which all the opinions of the citizens have been smothered, as far as it was possible; the entire nation has been as it were silenced and given over to guardians.”

The municipal spirit was the heart and soul of Anglo culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Thus, Tocqueville felt Malesherbes’s point explained a flaw in the specific democratic system that the French had tried to superimpose on the Bourbon monarchy. As if by osmosis, the Revolution had been forced to absorb the monarchy’s worst habits. As he does throughout his study, Tocqueville cites the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson regarding this flaw: “How could one express it better today than that the French Revolution has achieved what one might call conquests in the matter of centralization? In 1789, Jefferson wrote to one of his friends from Paris: ‘Never was there a country where the practice of governing too much had taken deeper root and done more mischief.’ Letters to Madison, 28 August 1789” (see DA, Appendix 1.1.K).

A generation after Tocqueville’s criticisms of the atrophy and apathy induced by paternalistic governments in France, John Stuart Mill noted in his essay On Liberty (1859) that well-intended top-down government policies echo the theology of the Catholic Church. Mill drew a distinction between robust public debate in a healthy society and a beneficent leader’s reluctance to expose his subjects to too much free speech. He parroted the Catholic line as follows: “simple minds, having been taught the obvious grounds of the truths inculcated on them, may trust to authority for the rest, and being aware that they have neither knowledge nor talent to resolve every difficulty which can be raised, may repose in the assurance that all those which have been raised have been or can be answered, by those who are specially trained to the task.”

This stultifying mistrust of people’s ability to think for themselves is a source of social fragility in any regime. In the same way that the French Revolution was forced by sociological conditions to imitate Louis XVI’s system of governance, Jean Jacques Rousseau’s emphasis on simplicity in life ratifies a Catholic preference for moral guidance in lieu of study, debate, and choice. This is tantamount to wishing there were less options on the cereal aisle of a grocery store. Yes, there are too many brands, but does anyone really experience catatonia when choosing between Frosted Flakes and Rice Crispies? Would it really help to curtail cereal options? Some might argue that capital would be better deployed in some other sector of the economy. Perhaps, but the real damage would be the effect on people’s habits. They would learn not to choose; they would unlearn how to be free. I prefer Rice Crispies. And you?

It’s always possible that a particular crisis requires deceiving the masses, but such a policy has terrible long-term consequences. It flattens our growth, both economically and socio-politically. Precisely because a market is messy over the near term, its long-term efficiency is glorious. Likewise, most individuals are broken in some way; but a gaggle of listing boats is better than a singular hulk at the bottom of the sea.

True to his dialogical and concessive philosophy, Mill credited Rousseau with reminding us that there’s value in living a simple life. But that way danger lies. You might be right to think the organic complexity of a decentralized, competitive socioeconomic order composed of individual actors is excessively maddening. But your value judgment substitutes an idealistic illusion for reality. Rousseau’s preferences are Catholic to the core, and the political result is that lawyers and ministers run society by way of the state. In Protestant countries, Mill stresses, “the responsibility for the choice of a religion must be borne by each for himself, and cannot be thrown off upon teachers.” There’s the rub. The habit of thinking, arguing, and deciding is so precious to a healthy society that limiting such habits entails enormous risk. Thus, the same risk lingers in Protestant minds. Mill complains of “the Calvinistic theory.”

According to that, the one great offence of man is self-will. All the good of which humanity is capable is comprised of obedience. … In some such insidious form there is at present a strong tendency to this narrow theory of life, and to the pinched and hidebound type of human character which it patronizes.

And today? There’s a trend toward responsible governance in states like Texas and Florida, and a growing municipal spirit in metropolitan areas like Miami and Madrid. The latter has emerged as one of the most rationally governed regions in Europe. There’s even some hope that Argentina might snap out of a century of malaise by freeing her citizens to spend, save, and work as they see fit. Meanwhile, the age-old virus of humanity’s fear of hyperbolic threats and our renewed dependency on the ideas and actions of our leaders ravages an American society that once epitomized rebellious individualism. The negative effects of our anxiety and our apathy are visible in everything from our overreliance on government to the sad faces of our youth to our preference for weight-loss drugs in lieu of proper cuisine. It’s the mindset of sheep that most threatens our basic liberties. It must be resisted. Citizens must be challenged with the notion that we are responsible for our lives, not some government boob.

Author’s Note: Years before my conversation with my Sevillian colleague in Charlottesville, I ate lunch at that same Tex-Mex restaurant with my father. Later that evening I got sick, vomiting to the point of dehydration and hallucination. I needed an IV at a hospital. “Hey look!” I said as my father drove my car to the emergency room. “Somebody else has a 1964 Oldsmobile F-85 just like mine.” It was just our reflection in the windows of the hospital. Stuff happens in life, but we shouldn’t let problems delude us into rejecting our ability to solve them. Gastroenteritis is almost always the result of a norovirus, not anything wrong with the goat cheese. I’ve been back to that same restaurant dozens of times. It’s still standing and serving great food years after my visit to the emergency room. That’s a good sign that its owners and employees are still not trying to murder their customers by putting strychnine on the rims of their margaritas.

Photo by pathdoc — Adobe Stock — Asset ID#: 71973113


  • Eric-Clifford Graf

    Eric-Clifford Graf (PhD, Virginia, 1997) teaches and writes about the liberal tradition as authored by men like Alexander Hamilton, Frederick Douglass, and Jorge Luis Borges. His latest book is ANATOMY OF LIBERTY IN DON QUIJOTE DE LA MANCHA (Lexington, 2021). All of his work can be found here: ericcliffordgraf.academia.edu/research.

3 thoughts on “Who’s Going to Make Sure the Salt Isn’t Poison?

  1. I’m not Jewish but given the choice, I’ll buy the Kosher product over the one that isn’t because someone with a reputation to defend has approved it. Same thing with things approved by Underwriter’s Laboratories (UL) — it’s a private outfit funded by insurance companies.

    As to the restaurant in question, yes there is a state or local health inspector and often some state system for recording & reporting communicable diseases, eg norovirus. In most jurisdictions, cafeterias keep samples of the items they served for testing in the event of a suspected food-borne illness, and this is all government.

    But again, it is the private sector that is far more effective — most restaurants today are franchised and the franchise has it’s own inspection teams which are considerably stricter than state ones — they also hire mystery shoppers to go into the various restaurants and report on their dining experience. There are numerous “foodie” journalists who report on restaurants and truck stops are informally rated by truck drivers and police officers — they know where the good food is and the sketchy places to avoid.

    The free market works if the public has objective information, and I’ll go back to the example of Kosher food. Jewish law means nothing to me because I’m a Congregationalist, but I recognize the fact that it does to those doing the Kosher certifications and that’s more credible to me than the edict of some governmental bureaucrat with sovereign immunity.

    And this applies to education as well. For decades what is now the US Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics has produced the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) which is often referred to as “the nation’s report card.” See: https://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/

    The NAEP is where the “girl gap” in STEM is documented, along with an even larger “boy gap” in language arts which no one ever seems to talk about. The data isn’t exactly understandable to a lay person, but it’s out there for anyone to read and for Joe Sixpack to print out and take to a meeting of his local school committee. It’s there for intrepid journalists to refer to when Governors start talking about education policy, and it’s there for the few members of Congress who know anything about education policy.

    We need something like the NAEP for higher education….

    We are spending an awful lot of taxpayer money on higher education and we really have no idea what (if anything) we are getting for it. Some statistics, like graduation rates, are out there but all that means is that the student managed to meet the standards of the institution, not what those standards actually are. Nor if the education had any actual benefit — i.e. if the kid got a job using it.

    One possible reform would be to create something similar to the NAEP for higher education. It would have to involve some national (or at least state-wide) exit examination and with the current fights over the SAT, I am hesitant to even consider the conflagration an objective cross-institution exit exam would bring.

    An earning profile of graduates is something the IRS could produce as it knows the Social Security numbers of almost all students — both those receiving financial aid and those taking the tuition expense tax deduction — and it will know the reported incomes of the same persons 5, 10, & 15 years after graduation. Such a metric would be inherently imperfect, but there are ways to adjust the statistics to reflect the income difference between those students entering Harvard and those entering the nearby Bunker Hill Community College.

    It would need to report median (half above and half below) and mode (most common number) as well as mean average because a few graduates with multi-million dollar salaries would skew the latter — although that would be better than what many institutions now do — tell about the few highly successful graduates while never mentioning the hundreds of thousands of not-so-successful ones.

    In advertising a prize, the state lottery has to tell you the odds of winning that prize — a college doesn’t and I think that’s part of the problem. It’s definitely a problem on the basketball courts in Black neighborhoods where every young man honestly believes that he will be the next multi-million dollar NBA star (none will) and I argue it is an equal problem with young people attending colleges.

    Neither they nor their parents would pay (and borrow) the vast sums they do if they truly knew their statistical odds of success. Their parents would never pay if they knew how little they could expect their children to have learned upon graduation — and this DEI foolishness would evaporate overnight if institutions realized that their very survival depended on the quality of the education they were providing to their students.

    It’ll never happen, but I’d so love to see published statistics on an objective exit exam and post graduate earnings….

  2. The obvious point to make about this article is that there are trade-offs for everything. Cars are much safer now after decades of government regulation, and meat packing plants are routinely inspected by government functionaries. While excessive government regulation is an issue, defining excessive is not the simple matter this writer believes. We are a much more crowded nation than we were in 1776 and we get in each others way. Government sets rules for staying out of each other’s way and in a democratic government the people decide through their representatives.

    1. Interesting. I think we have overdosed on government rules to the point of society decay, and the “this is not 1776” routine is an excuse. But setting that issue aside, we’re agreed that there is a LOT more regulation now, and what *that* does to people is my principal point. My car now tells me to drive safely by observing traffic signs before I leave the garage. I cannot tell if this is a result of too much regulation of the first order, or if it is a second-order regulatory response to the fact that too much regulation makes people forget how to drive a car. Are we really prepared to go to Mars if we need this much help before 8am? What I do know is that all this governing turns us into fearful dependent sheep who think danger lurks around every corner. We have no statistical concept of risk; we just accept whatever the self-promoting government tells us. It’s truly astonishing how gullible more than half the population has become. And humiliating. Do we need this much parenting?

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