Meathead

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From the Boiling Frogs on The Dispatch

It’s been a bad week for libertarianism.

Actually, it’s been a bad decade for libertarianism. “No, it’s been a bad century,” a devout libertarian might counter, accurately enough.

Still, things seem to be going especially badly when the Libertarian Party excitedly announces as a guest speaker at their upcoming convention a guy who relishes tariffs, resents immigration, and has taken to chattering lately about deploying the U.S. military domestically if he’s elected president again.

The Libertarian Party has often been a poor servant to thoughtful libertarianism. It’s always had trouble resisting the temptation to ally itself with candidates who aren’t very libertarian in practice in hopes of gaining a wider audience. It’s also always had a major kook problem, one that’s gotten worse over the last few years as alt-righters have gained influence within the organization. Inviting Donald Trump to the convention feels like the culmination of both trends simultaneously. If you pine for a serious libertarian movement in the U.S., seeing the official party organ fall into the arms of an authoritarian miscreant feels like the moment to throw in the towel.

That wasn’t the worst moment for libertarianism this week, though.

The worst moment came on Wednesday when the second-most popular populist in the GOP made an exciting announcement of his own. No more will the scourge of meat grown in labs trouble the Sunshine State, Gov. Ron DeSantis declared. Henceforth, producing or selling the stuff is an honest-to-goodness crime punishable by up to 60 days in jail.

If you want to make a living peddling meat in Florida, you had better be hacking off pieces of a cow, pig, or chicken. Which makes this not just a grim week for libertarians in the GOP but an unusually grim one for animals as well.

A single state’s policy on meat may seem far afield from what this newsletter typically covers but it isn’t. We typically concern ourselves with the excesses of populism and that’s what Florida’s new law demonstrates, in spades. With unusual efficiency, it combines the most loathsome elements of the sort of New Right politics that DeSantis has embraced to get ahead in his party. It’s imperious, protectionist, deeply corrupt, and panders to the paranoia that animates so much of the GOP’s crankish base.

Amid the crimes, coup attempts, and general amorality, it’s a nice reminder that populism is terrible for mundane policy reasons as well.


Every conservative will have the same intuition about Florida’s dumb law. If there are people willing to try lab-grown meat (and there assuredly are) and there are people willing to sell it to them, by what right does the government interfere in that transaction?

In the “free state of Florida,” why shouldn’t residents be free to participate in a market for “fake meat”?

The only good answer I can think of would involve safety concerns with the product. But there aren’t any. Even if there were, those concerns might plausibly be addressed by regulating production rather than criminalizing it. Nor is DeSantis seriously arguing that lab-grown meat poses a grave public health risk: How could he when just two companies have received FDA approval to produce the stuff thus far and neither one has stock available for purchase anywhere in the U.S.?

Florida’s law is a solution in search of a problem, as bad legislation often is.

The pre-Trump Tea Party version of Ron DeSantis would agree with all of that emphatically, I suspect. The post-Trump populist version not only sees no problem with state paternalism in this matter, he reveled in it with authoritarian bombast at Wednesday’s press conference. “Take your fake lab-grown meat elsewhere. We’re not doing that in the state of Florida,” the governor crowed at one point. At another he compared eating the meat to eating insects and sneered that “Florida has heard enough on that.”

Individual Floridians could decide for themselves whether they’ve “heard enough.” Why does DeSantis Augustus feel obliged to decide for them?

This episode reveals an ideological fault line between the two factions of the right. Conservatives believe that the government should override individual agency when a compelling public interest requires it to do so. Populists seem to believe that advancing a right-wing cultural agenda is always a compelling interest—even in cases like this one where the specific interest in question is anything but compelling.

Needless to say, that populist license to behave imperiously runs only one way. If Joe Biden signed a law passed by a Democratic Congress banning meat and declared that “we” Americans have “heard enough” about eating animals, the New Right’s indignation at his contempt for individual agency would erupt like Krakatoa.

DeSantis’ own remarks in the clip above illustrate the point. Compare his disdain for the fact that the World Economic Forum recommends eating insects to reduce carbon emissions with his obliviousness to his own petty authoritarianism in banning lab-grown meat. At least the WEF is offering you a choice. In Florida, the governor chooses for you.

It would be bad enough if the “fake meat” ban were merely pointless and authoritarian, but it’s also terrible economic policy. It will be terrible for Florida and it might be terrible for America, depending on how many other red states are foolish enough to follow DeSantis’ lead. But it’s terrible any way you slice it.

The best-case scenario is that other Republicans ignore Florida’s example and leave their own local “fake meat” industries alone. They have an incentive to do so: Every job and investment dollar in that field that isn’t going to the Sunshine State is one that can come to their states. With any luck, innovation of lab-grown meat will flourish domestically and be gradually perfected until it’s healthier, tastier, and far more environmentally friendly than the real thing. Humans will benefit from consuming it, animals will benefit from not having to supply it. Everyone wins—except Florida, which will be stuck playing catch-up with the other 49 states.

The worst-case scenario is that other Republicans emulate Florida and start banning the production and sale of “fake meat” in their own backyards. In that case, we’ll risk the same problems Florida will face in the scenario I just described except on a national scale. “This bill sends a terrible message to the investors, scientists, and entrepreneurs that have built America’s global leadership in alternative proteins,” one executive at a company producing lab-grown meat told Green Queen, a website focusing on decarbonizing food systems. The fact that the U.S. isn’t aggressively producing cultivated meat won’t stop global competitors like China from doing so, and so jobs and dollars will flow there instead.

Eventually we’ll either be dependent on imports to meet domestic demand or U.S. legislative efforts to choke off the global supply will succeed well enough to kill a promising industry in its crib. Thank Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature if it happens: The “free state of Florida,” forever boasting of its dynamism, will have led the way.

But wait. It gets worse.


Florida’s “fake meat” ban is actually a grotesquely brazen case of rent-seeking lightly disguised in culture-war trappings to make it more palatable to populist suckers.

There’s nothing more high-minded behind the ban than shielding the state’s 15,000 cattle ranchers from competitive pressure and DeSantis’ administration isn’t straining to pretend otherwise. “We must protect our incredible farmers and the integrity of American agriculture,” Florida’s ag commissioner said in a news release. “Lab-grown meat is a disgraceful attempt to undermine our proud traditions and prosperity and is in direct opposition to authentic agriculture.”

The governor himself was explicit about the ban’s protectionist intentions. “What we’re protecting here is the [cattle] industry against acts of man, against an ideological agenda that wants to finger agriculture as the problem, that views things like raising cattle as destroying our climate,” DeSantis said at his press conference, reminding the audience that Florida has “one of the top cattle industries in the country.”

Exactly why that industry should be “protected” from a competitor that potentially might produce more jobs, more wealth, fewer hungry people, and a better environment is unclear except for the fact that Big Ag has vastly more money and political influence than the nascent “fake meat” industry does. Even important stakeholders in the current production chain stand to lose from the Florida ban: Some meat companies have chosen to invest in cultivated meat “to complement conventional meat production, improve supply chain resilience, and ensure American’s access to meat as global demand for animal protein is projected to double by 2050.”

To grasp how grim the state of the GOP is under the leadership of Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, meditate on the fact that the following quote came from a Democrat rather than a Republican: “I don’t think the state of Florida should be choosing winners and losers and allow corporate capture to take place, where we’re basically bending laws to benefit specific industries,” state Rep. Anna Eskamani said about banning lab-grown meat back in March, sounding every inch a Tea Partier circa 2012.

Still, even a politician as popular and powerful as DeSantis will struggle to sell a policy to his base if he can’t find a justification more stirring than, “I’ve been bought and sold by a special interest.” Trump understands that too, per his recent flip-flop on banning TikTok. He claimed that his newfound opposition to the ban is a matter of not wanting the dastardly Big Tech progressives at Facebook to benefit from having one of their chief competitors go dark in America, but the likely truth about his reversal is far more mundane. Culture war is a wonderful fig leaf for financial motives. Ask any populist demagogue with a presence online.

The fig leaf in the case of Florida’s ban on lab-grown meat is that the stuff is being pushed by the expert class, the same highly educated left-wing foil DeSantis used when positioning himself as a bulwark against pandemic restrictions in 2020 and 2021. This is a guy, remember, who sold campaign merchandise with the slogan “Don’t Fauci My Florida” on it. Anytime a scientist is encouraging people to do something or not do something for their own good, the governor is sniffing around for a way to argue the contrary.

You can draw a straight line from his reprehensible campaign against the COVID vaccines to his hyperventilating about “fake meat.” In both cases, elites are asking the public to put a novel substance into their bodies that will supposedly improve their health and the health of the wider population. And in both cases, DeSantis has demagogued those elites to oblivion by being egregiously alarmist about it. It’s no coincidence that he referenced the World Economic Forum—the global upper crust who meet every year in Davos—in his public remarks about Florida’s new ban.

Sparring with the scientific expert class touches a lot of populist erogenous zones: resentment at the highly educated for telling the less educated what to do; annoyance at progressives for demanding that the rest of us remake our lives to suit their climate-change agenda; paranoia that a powerful elite class might be conspiring to tinker with the biology of average joes; anger at technocrats for meddling with the tried and true way things have always been done instead of bowing to tradition.

All of those impulses come together in the populist impulse to do things the “natural” way. One Republican state representative in Florida framed his interest in banning lab-grown meat explicitly in those terms last year, calling the substance an “affront to nature and creation.” Likewise, vaccine skeptics spent the better part of two years undermining trust in mRNA vaccine technology by insisting that natural immunity from a COVID infection was at least as good, if not better, than the immunity provided by the jab—never mind the greater risk of death it presented.

“Real Americans” do things the way Americans have always done them and so they prefer real meat, as nature intended. The fake Americans in blue states can dine on fake meat if they prefer. There’s even a touch of macho panic to that logic: Meat-eating is a hallmark of masculinity, of course, and so the left’s designs on curbing the practice seem of a piece with their support for feminism and gender-fluidity.

In sum, the populist argle-bargle about “fake meat” is a cynical play by Ron DeSantis to get grassroots Republicans to cheer him on as he does something that’s plainly economically destructive and for plainly corrupt cronyist reasons. “Anti-science, anti-business, anti-freedom, big government, self-owning, decel bullsh-t,” said one critic of the new law, summing things up eloquently. The governor’s base will love it.


I confess to being biased about all of this.

Not in the sense that I dislike DeSantis and his brand of politics, although I do. And not in the sense that I love animals and would greatly prefer to see fewer of them killed for my dinner, although that’s also true.

I’m biased because I live in Texas. And increasingly, novel-ish technologies that were traditionally championed by the left and scoffed at by the right are keeping me and other Texans alive.

If the power grid in this state ever goes down during one of our infernal summers, many people will die. The heat is indescribable, routinely above 100 degrees for months on end. And with Americans moving here in droves every year, the odds of that grid failure happening are theoretically rising. More people means more demand for electricity means more stress on the grid.

But it hasn’t happened yet. And the reason it hasn’t happened is because green energy—wind and solar—is meeting the rising demand and then some.

Texas, America’s paradigmatic red state, is now one of the country’s most robust producers of wind and solar energy. That surge in production kept the grid stable last summer as the state melted under relentless heat and power demand reached record levels. It also prevented a deep freeze earlier this year from causing any power crashes of the sort that killed hundreds of people in 2021.

If Republican lawmakers in Texas had treated green energy the way Ron DeSantis is treating “fake meat,” demagoguing it on populist grounds as some sort of hippie cultural affront to “tradition” or whatever, the state would be unlivable for months each year. Because they didn’t, Texas is a powerhouse—in every sense.

Lab-grown meat won’t change lives that dramatically anytime soon, but every useful technology begins as a fledgling. The governor of Florida would rather smother the latest one for political advantage than give it space to compete. That’s the sort of bad judgment that would make him a bad president, and should be held against him—along with numerous other things—when he runs again in 2028. Conservatives can do better.

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