I have argued that consumer pressure for better treatment of animals in agriculture is a good thing, but that pressuring for better treatment of workers might lead to worse outcomes. Obviously, there are a lot of consequential differences between workers and animals, but I will try to explain which differences specifically matter and why. Note that in both cases I am ignoring the welfare of consumers here.
The first and fundamental difference is that animals cannot bargain and do not have choices. Humans usually have other alternatives to a given employer, and even under a local monopsony they can move. So when you observe a workers current employment situation it likely reflects the best choice among all of their alternatives. When prevent a worker from making a particular choice, say by pressuring a corporation to stop employing those workers, then you are pushing them into their next best choices which is a good indicator that you are making them worse off.
In contrast, Animals are owned outright and have no alternatives, which means that if you push corporations from using them as they currently do, their next highest use may make them better off even if it is a less profitable arrangement overall. Since they do not share in their marginal product, this need not make them worse off .
Another fundamental difference in a similar vein is that the supply of animals is much more elastic than the supply of people who might wish to work. If a given industry were to fire it’s lowest level of workers because the jobs were seen as too dangerous, or if costs are raised due to higher job perks or safety, then those workers pushed out of that job and industry will be excess labor supply in another industry. On top of the next-worst-choice problem highlighted above, this means that workers currently employed in the next worst industry will face lower wages from higher labor supply.
In contrast, when a factory farm producing pigs is pressured into ceasing operations or increasing standards so the profit maximizing quantity decreases, the supply of pigs produced can be reduced quickly in a way that is not true of workers. Since agriculture is very competitive, it’s likely that pigs across industries are being produced near long-run average cost, so that any extra supply of pigs will only decrease prices for alternative uses of pigs in the short run, and in the medium and long run less pigs will simply be raise. This is also why the next-worse-choice problem that workers face isn’t as significant for animals: for most their next worse choice is probably never being born, which very often is an improvement.
This post was inspired by an old Tyler Cowen post that I think about often but can’t seem to find. What aspects of this issue am I missing?