Paul Krugman — Milton Friedman To Blame For E. Coli

First things first, I might as well just point you over to Cafe Hayek. Russ Roberts takes Paul Krugman apart, and does all the heavy lifting.

What did Krugman say? Since it’s behind the TimesSelect firewall, I can’t really get it directly, but here’s a portion of it:

These are anxious days at the lunch table. For all you know, there may be E. coli on your spinach, salmonella in your peanut butter and melamine in your pet’s food and, because it was in the feed, in your chicken sandwich.

Who’s responsible for the new fear of eating? Some blame globalization; some blame food-producing corporations; some blame the Bush administration. But I blame Milton Friedman.

Good for you, Paul. Who’s really to blame for fear of eating? I blame the sensationalist media. After all, when I gave up my TV for two months, I had a lot less stress in my life about E. Coli, world affairs, etc. I also blame a public school system that doesn’t teach kids the basics of probability, critical thinking, and statistics. You see? We can both look at something we hate, and manufacture reasons why they’re to blame for this!

What are Krugman’s reasons?

This isn’t simply a matter of caving in to industry pressure. The Bush administration won’t issue food safety regulations even when the private sector wants them. The president of the United Fresh Produce Association says that the industry’s problems “can’t be solved without strong mandatory federal regulations”: without such regulations, scrupulous growers and processors risk being undercut by competitors more willing to cut corners on food safety. Yet the administration refuses to do more than issue nonbinding guidelines.

That’s why I blame the food safety crisis on Milton Friedman, who called for the abolition of both the food and the drug sides of the F.D.A. What would protect the public from dangerous or ineffective drugs? “It’s in the self-interest of pharmaceutical companies not to have these bad things,” he insisted in a 1999 interview. He would presumably have applied the same logic to food safety (as he did to airline safety): regardless of circumstances, you can always trust the private sector to police itself.

As Russ Roberts points out, this isn’t evidence that Bush is accepting Friedman’s teachings. After all, Friedman would look at his spending, at NCLB, at Medicare Part D, and see abject failure in every case. Even when Bush has attempted to do something that might enhance freedom, such as an attempt to bring in school choice, or to privatize Social Security, it turns into a watered-down big government program, or a non-starter. Heck, as I’ve pointed out, I oppose Bush’s plans for Social Security with a pejorative description: Social Security Part D.

But to take Krugman’s bait misses the point. The amazing thing is that you can go into a store anywhere in the United States, buy some spinach, beef, and milk, and yet you’ll have such a tiny chance of contracting E. Coli, Mad Cow, or listeria that you don’t even have to think about it. Back in the days before a free market, you’d be lucky to buy any of those things at all. In fact, you’d only be able to afford them if you were rich. Not only that, you wouldn’t know if they were good or not. Chris Rock, in one of his comedy bits, mentions that eating pork isn’t really immoral, it was simply a religious rule for preservation of the species. After all, back in the day, a pork chop could kill you. Now we trust our food companies so much that you can eat raw beef carpaccio without fear. Back in the day, everyone drank beer constantly because most water in major metropolitan cities was infected. Boiling the water to make beer killed the bacteria in the water, and the resultant alcohol of fermentation inhibited its growth. Now you trust what comes out of your tap, but buy fancy bottled water anyway.

It wasn’t the government that brought you these things, it was government staying out of the way allowing smart people to work for profit.

But even more insane is the idea that things are getting worse… Russ Roberts pokes a hole in that one as well:

The other part I like is the implication that until the evil free market Bush administration got in power, we had a safe food supply.

FYI, Paul, there were major E. coli outbreaks in the US in 1994, 1996, 1997 and 1999. There was also one in January and February of 1993, but I won’t count that one. I’ll blame that one on the Friedman-influenced Bush the First.

In 1996, there were major outbreaks in the Friedman-dominated free market anarchist utopias of Germany, Scotland and Japan.

Maybe we can blame the German one on Hayek, the Scottish on Adam Smith, and the Japanese on one of their premier free-market economists?

Or we could realize that we don’t live in a world that’s 100% safe, and that no amount of money government spends, nor number of laws they write, will change that.

  • Kaligula

    Well Krugman blames Friedman for a number of things.

    But last time I checked, we still have an FDA. Apparently, Krugman doesn’t like the way it’s being run. Well, no shit sherlock. It’s pretty typical that the party out of power doesn’t approve of the way the other party runs the bureaucracies–one of the fundamental flaws of relying on bureaucracies to enforce the public good.

    Krugman,inadvertantly, is actually making the case against the FDA. He’s saying the FDA is ineffective without the right politicians being elected. Well, he can’t guarantee that his definition of the “right” politicians will always be elected. Whereas, the laws of supply and demand universally hold, despite who is elected.

    Sure, Krugman can quote Upton Sinclair about the abuses before the FDA, but, apparently, he appears too bogged down with pointing out how fucked up the FDA is now from his point of view. Hey, Krugman, what if we had 8 straught terms of Bush clones. What would you think about your FDA then?

    Don’t tell us our safety is dependent upon voting democratic. Seems to me, you’ve written quite a few columns denouncing Republicans for implying the american people’s safety was dependent on electing them.

    It cuts both ways, Krugman.

    Vote Libertarian

  • VRB

    You don’t go back far enough, before samonella was part of the chicken’s reproductive system. For me food is way more unsafe than it use to be. E coli on fruits and vegatables was extremely rare. In fact I never hear of it growing up. So, I would say the outbreaks we have now aren’t rare.
    In who’s best interest is it to wait til the bodies pile up (to get that statistical sample)before the market introduces safety measures.

  • tarran


    I think any actual downhill trend in food safety is due mainly to poor hygiene on the part of the populace rather than because of increasingly unsafe practices in manufacturing and distribution.

    For example, I have observed my grandparents’ generation wash vegetables far more thoroughly than I or my peers do when making salads. People today are far more likely to assume anything in the supermarket is safe to eat right away.

    Additionally, deaths from food problems are far more widely reported now, in this age of low cost communications than they were 50 years ago.

    The only group that has in interest in letting bodies pile up is the government. Food manufacturers are dependent on repeat customers. If you poison and kill some of your customers, not only do you lose the custom of the dead, but the survivors tend to avoid your stuff like the plague.

    Yes, occasionally you have a malefactor like that idiot in China putting that pesticide in his food product. however, guys like him are an exception to the rule, and tend to only get one chance to kill anybody, same as they would in a highly government controlled distribution system.

  • David T

    E.Coli is not naturally present in vegetables. It is typically the result of tainted water being used to rinse the crop, or the result of cattle or sheep run-off contamination.

    Washing vegetables is only necessary when the method to ship,store, or produce them is tainted, and is not linked to poor personal hygiene.

  • Wild Pegasus

    The president of the United Fresh Produce Association says that the industry’s problems “can’t be solved without strong mandatory federal regulations”: without such regulations, scrupulous growers and processors risk being undercut by competitors more willing to cut corners on food safety.

    That’s not what the UFPA President is really worried about. What he’s worried about is people switching to local produce, undermining the whole mass-market factory-farm corporate agribusiness system. That system requires massive subsidies, heavy regulation, and government approval. It takes trust and/or a lot of taxpayer cash to overcome the natural human suspicion of food killed or picked by someone else.

    If Krugman had ever read a decent book on the rise of the regulatory state, say, The Triumph of Conservatism, maybe he wouldn’t be such a stupid corporate shill. Nah.

    – Josh

  • VRB

    You trust too much.

  • Brad Warbiany


    That’s a great point… I’m sure the President of UFPA isn’t pulling for “regulations” that harm competitors to the members of his lobby, right? ;-)


    The question isn’t trusting too much. Unless you’re growing it yourself, you’re trusting someone. The real question is what politicians have done to make us believe they’re trustworthy? Major food producers have been offering me a safe, inexpensive product that I have willingly consumed for 28 years. Government, in that time, has been an expensive provider of unquantifiable “services”, and has taken their money from me under threat of force.

    Who do you trust, your corner grocer, or your corner mafia don? Because the government is more like the latter than the former…

  • tarran

    Washing vegetables is only necessary when the method to ship,store, or produce them is tainted, and is not linked to poor personal hygiene.

    Exactly. My grandparents definitely did not trust that the distribution systems were untainted; they treated their food as if it were potentially contaminated rather than assuming that it wasn’t.

  • tarran


    Funny – I feel the same way about you.

    It’s in a seller’s best interest to assure my repeat custom by selling me stuff I want, which happens to include non-poisonous food. If he harms me or annoys me, he won’t get any more money from me.

    A government official has absolutely no incentive to do a good job. If anything, he has an incentive to do a half-assed job, failure is generally rewarded with expanded budgets.

    So, whom should I put my “trust” in? The guy who will be hurt if he harms me? Or the guy who will benefit slightly if I am harmed?

    I swear, most people worship the state like a golden calf…

  • David T


    It is the government that has provided standards and enforcement of those standards for food safety. Otherwise, you will have more E. Coli outbreaks because there is no incentive for Joe Farmer to actually make sure his product is clean – the ‘free market’ isn’t going to do it. After all, there was free market ruling the day in the 1900s, and sometimes your sausage contained pork parts – and sometimes it didn’t. Food does not need to be some guessing game where maybe you’re safe and maybe you’re not. You have to only be wrong once btw, so worrying if you’re a ‘repeat’ customer isn’t quite the threat it’s perceived to be.

    The elimination of unsafe food processes is because of government regulation, not in spite of it. Ultimately, that golden calf makes sure that, well, the calf is safe to eat.

  • Wild Pegasus

    David T illustrates exactly the sort of sentiment that gave conservatism its triumph. He sees an E. Coli outbreak and says, “The government’s got to fix it!” without examining the underlying causes. It goes something like this:

    “So-and-so got sick from bad meat. The government should do something about it.”
    “Where did they get it?”
    “The supermarket.”
    “Where did the supermarket get it?”
    “I don’t know.”
    “He doesn’t know where his food comes from?”
    “No. Do you?”
    “Not really. Do you think it came a long way?”
    “It could have come from anywhere.”
    “By interstate? Railroad?”
    “Who builds those?”
    “…the government…”

    Most people see a problem and don’t think about its root. But the whole agribusiness system is a creation of massive state interference, both in transportation, water allocation, and regulation. More state interference is the wrong way to go: instead we should be pushing for more decentralized production. Production closer to the point of consumption reduces pollution and regulation – less energy goes into transport, and less regulation (state or market discipline) is needed for oversight.

    – Josh

  • VRB

    Just who are most people? That train of thought must be yours.

  • David T

    If I’ve enabled conservative thinking to triumph, I had no idea I had so much influence.

    We’ve tried the self-regulation of food production. Strangely, it didn’t become safer. We’ve tried the self-regulation of food-reselling – and strangely, it doesn’t work either. In Josh’s world, a supermarket should be able to relabel or food-color its rotting meat – and if you get botulism, too bad, so sad. Maybe you won’t shop there again – until you realize that in an attempt to extend profits, supermarkets as a whole are reselling bad meat. But that’ll be okay – because there’s no need or ability to regulate it. After all it passed muster in this county so it’ll be just fine after six days in the sun in transit to your neck of the woods. Why should the state or federal government care?

    Canned food – that’ll be okay too if the can was lined with lead instead of aluminum or tin because that metal was cheaper and more readily available at the time the manufacturer got his cans. It won’t bother you a bit if the baby food you have contains a shard of glass that shreds your toddler’s esophagus – there’s no need to regulate or enforce standards there. Welcome to Russian Roulette grocery shopping.

    You’ll be able to wash that bad tasting food down with some bottled water … laced with arsenic. That’s because there weren’t any rules or regulations on what ‘bottled water’ should really be nor any standards to be adhered to. Since there’s no regulation, there’s no reason to actually deliver clean water, but rather water that comes from the Hudson. Enjoy.

    Sorry that the beer killed you. We said that it was 6.2% alcohol by volume. It was actually 34% and you seem to have overdosed – but don’t worry, you get to keep the brain damage. Thank goodness the state doesn’t enforce any standards! Thank goodness we’ve attributed this gross negligence to state-run railways, interstates, and interference however.

    With food, you only have to be wrong once to have some lifelong consequences. Why do you insist on such a guessing game, Josh?

  • VRB

    Even with regulation some grocers will do things like brush the meat with formaldehyde to keep red or soak chicken in salt water to remove the rotting smell. These things have been reported, later than the 50’s. The very process of producing large quantities of chickens is what caused the salmonella to morph into species that thrive in the chickens reproductive system. When it comes to maximizing profits, the customer becomes the human guinea pig. With the grocers it is not even very much.

    I see a purpose of government to defend our life. We accept this when our enemies are men, but not with other entities. As an individual we cannot know everything and we cannot be eternally vigilante against every threat.

  • Brad Warbiany


    As you brought up the issue of trust, I see you implicitly trusting two things:

    1) Government is capable of protecting you.
    2) Government cares about you.

    The first is usually not true. Government may be able to punish those who wronged you, but they’re really pretty bad at protecting you. They rarely stop things such as E. Coli (as seen in multiple outbreaks over the last decade and a half), although you can at least make an argument that they reduce these things through threat of punishment. Either way, trusting the government to defend your life leaves you defenseless.

    The second is where it really gets nasty. Most politicians are about making you believe they’re looking out for you, when they’re really looking out for their own re-election. Why do you think every regulation benefits big business, stifles competition, and often backfires when it comes to its stated purpose? Usually because politicians aren’t writing regulations to protect you, they’re doing so to protect their own Congressional seat.

    The problem is that you’re looking at government the way you were taught government should behave. When you start to look at it through the actual history of its behavior, it seems like nothing more than a big lie. Government doesn’t work, because the incentives are all wrong. They’ll only act in your interests if they have to, and with an apathetic, uninformed electorate, they really don’t have to.

    When it comes to the food industry, I actually do have trust in them. They do have to compete for my business. If they defraud me and start lining my canned goods with lead, I’ll sue their asses. A company who defrauds their consumers, or negligently causes them harm, will not last very long.

    The difference is that if it’s a private entity, we can put them out of business through lawsuits and boycotts. If they harm someone in my family, I can demand restitution and usually get paid off. But what happens when a government agency causes me harm. What happens when FDA regulations take away a life-saving drug that a dear loved one could use. Can I sue them and put them out of business? Nope… Can I boycott them by not paying my taxes? No, because they’ll come to my house and throw me in jail.

    So you want to know who to trust? Who’s done more to earn it, the food companies who continue to provide you with good food? The companies who are now voluntarily ceasing the use of trans-fats because they’re found to be unhealthy? Or do you trust the government, who create farm subsidies that encourage the use of things like high-fructose corn syrup, which is so much more unhealthy than cane sugar (which they tax with high tariffs) that you can reasonably argue that they’re making us fat?

    I’m not going to argue that the free market is perfect. After all, in the free market, people die, people get poisoned, people get injured due to the neglect of businesses and corporations. My argument is simply that government leads to even worse outcomes than the free market would provide.

  • VRB

    By the time your suit is finished you could be dead.To sue assumes that you know what the cause of your malady was. I am not saying that I trust the government implicitly, but having bad government is the fault of the society. Apathy and those that are too high minded to participate create that. Consumer organizations can help keep the government in check, when it comes to safety. I’ve had to rely on the FDA as a clearing house of information, when one pharmaceutical had a recall of all of its generic drugs. So, I do see a need for government to do the things I do not have resources to do.

  • trumpetbob15


    you wrote,
    “I’ve had to rely on the FDA as a clearing house of information, when one pharmaceutical had a recall of all of its generic drugs.”

    I have one question for you. Did the FDA approve of those generic drugs and allow them to be sold in the market with the “FDA-approval” logo before they were recalled?

  • tarran

    having bad government is the fault of the society. Apathy and those that are too high minded to participate create that.

    It has been my experience that bad government directly correlates with the power its officials have. the more power they have, the more evil men are attracted to the posts. These evil men use fraud or force to acquire their positions, and then abuse their positions for their personal gain.

    I cite as a case in point FDR. When he first ran for president, he ran against Hoover. The Great Depression, then about 2-3 years old had risen largely as the result of the Hoover administration’s disastrous monetary, industrial and agricultural programs. Hoover ran on a platform of continuing his interventions. FDR ran on a platform of returning to free markets and away from government managed trade.

    Then, once in office, he proceeded to violate most of his campaign promises; he expanded Hoover’s programs. He forced farmers to destroy crops at gunpoint while people were starving in the cities. He confiscated the nation’s gold. He encouraged people to spy on their neighbors and report them for economic crimes. He adopted Mussolini’s cartelized economic policies as much as the Supreme Court and Congress would allow him to get away with.

    Thanks to his disastrous policies the Great Depression, instead of Ending in 1933 or 1934 lasted into 1946 (trust me, World War II didn’t end it, B-29’s are not consumer goods).

    Were people high-minded and apathetic? Nope. They were lied to and tricked, subjected to massive propaganda campaigns, cut off from dissenting voices. The lies and trickery were so pervasive so effectively promulgated, that today they are still held to be “the truth” by most people.

    The people who supported Roosevelt throughout his reign were people who stood to gain from his policies. The major industrial leaders who saw their profits assured and new competitors permanently silenced in favor of existing producers. The banking industry loved the way he allowed them to keep their profits while forcing the tax-payer to pick up their losses. Social Reformers of all stripes saw their chance to use government to force their cures on the populace.

    In the end, they hastened millions of deaths, and consigned people to decades of misery. We the tax-payers still suffer from many programs they created to support their fellow tax-eaters.

    It was not apathy or high-mindedness that allowed this. Rather it was the power they seized that allowed them to coerce and loot their victims far more thoroughly.

  • VRB

    You believe society sees that admistration as you do. If most feel that it was suscessful and are happy for it, then governmenment has fulfilled its purpose. Even if it you are absolutly right in your assessment, it makes no difference of things in the past. To paraphrase Janet Jackson,”What have you done lately?”

  • VRB

    The reason for the recall was not because the drugs didn’t meet the spec for the generic. It was some failure in production process. Those generics in the past had been acceptable.

    The question you asked seems like you are saying that no Ford Cars should of been sold before they recalled the Pinto.

  • NoOneYouKnow

    Well, it’s been fun dropping by here and checking out the intellectual twister libertarians have to play in order to maintain their politics. What difference does the distance traveled or government ownership of transportation infrastructure make to whether food is tainted with e. coli?
    “The only group that has interest in letting bodies pile up is the government”? Tell that to the victims of Thalidomide, Pintos, and lead paint. The corporations and private concerns will do cost/benefit analyses to determine whether they’ll sell you something or fix somthing that will kill you. Repeat custom? Who cares as long as they got you the first time, or if you don’t know they’re killing you for years, they don’t care.
    And as for Krugman having it both ways when he says Repubs shouldn’t tell people their safety depends on voting for Repubs and saying people’s safety depends on voting Democratic: Uh, it’s true. Democrats are at least as interested as Repubs in keeping Americans militarily secure. Dems are demonstrably better with food and safety regulation, though there’s room for miles of improvement. The Bushies have almost completely neutered OSHA, the FDA, the EPA, and various other agencies that help keep people alive. The Dems will obviously restore at least some of the function of these agencies.
    Seriously, people, if you had your way, we wouldn’t have liberty, we’d have catastrophe.

  • trumpetbob15


    Thank you for providing more information. I did mean to imply that the generics couldn’t be sold; I was merely wondering if the generics had passed the FDA inspection and still had a problem (for example, Vioxx). Saying that, I still have a question for you. You wrote that you needed “to rely on the FDA as a clearing house of information” with this generic. I guess I am wondering, did you HAVE to do this or did you CHOOSE to get information from the FDA?

    I ask because if one of my appliances is recalled, I will easily get enough information by going to the Underwriter’s Laboratory Website. In this instance, a private group has taken the time to become the expert on appliances. With both the brand name and the company’s money on the line, UL is far more effective in preventing appliance issues than the FDA. As I mentioned above, the FDA approved Vioxx and then suddenly the drug was causing other problems. So what exactly did the FDA do? Isn’t it the FDA’s mandate that they check drugs for other complications? Why should we keep a government program around that could pretty easily be replaced by a private group and that isn’t living up to its own reason for existence?

    By the way, for fun, you can replace my reference to the FDA in the last sentence with a reference to the United States Postal Service and nothing else will change. Just another example of a government program failing miserably compared to private groups.

  • VRB

    The FDA wasn’t the original source, I received the info from a health care professional for the alert, but I was able to go to their website to find the specific generics involved. I take many medications and I never know which company I will be getting them from, so even if I did not have that brand I would be on the lookout in case some were not returned or destroyed. As I said I think there is a need for private organizations too, but financially supporting those can be a little iffy. I would not trust the pharmaceuticals to always do the right thing.
    You mention the USPS, I recently had a shipment which it was cheaper and faster than UPS or FEDEX, so I am not inclined to trash it either.
    I may have had more reason than you to distrust the government. I am not a starry eyed individual about all things collective. I have worked in small companies that has shown me how much value customers have. All human institution are subject to work against their own best interest. Until human evolve, it will continue to be so.

    Individuality is a fluid concept and in its purest form could be the detriment of human survival. I have to rely on so many people for my survival. So to a certain extent I have to trust everybody, but I do not have to believe that there is some Utopian system that would alleviate all my fears.

  • VRB

    I know that I could get much faster delivery, just lets say I didn’t want to spend a pay check to get my packaged delivered the same time.