Cruelty to pigs, willingness to pay, and intrinsic animal rights

Brad Taylor has an interesting post discussing how New Zealand pig farmers are using the issue of stall vs non-stall pigs as a way to increase protectionism in the New Zealand pork industry.

Now if all that matters is how humans value the issue then Brad is right – the efficient solution requires no regulation.

Why? If people value pigs not being hurt, they will be willing to pay to eat non-stall pigs. If all overseas pigs are stall pigs (as the farmers are saying) then this creates an opportunity for NZ farmers to differentiate and tap into this market. If people aren’t willing to pay sufficiently enough more, then there is no market for it.

As a result, as long as all that matters is how humans value and the choice of conditions is observable there is no need for “protection against overseas pork”.

However, we may instead believe that animals have some intrinsic right not to be tortured. As pigs don’t actually have a choice in the matter we may require regulations if we want their rights to be valued.

In this case, a tax on stall pig meat that captures the value of the pigs suffering WOULD be the solution – as there is a clear externality on pigs that cannot be solved through Coase bargaining.

As a result the key question we have to ask is, what intrinsic right to the lack of torture do pigs have?  If we can define that then a mixture of clear labeling and a tax on pork from stall pigs could be the solution.

40 replies
  1. Brad Taylor
    Brad Taylor says:

    I wasn’t meaning to make a moral judgement on sow crates, but just point out that pig farmers were using a moral argument to argue for government policy which benefits them financially. I’d also classify Federated Farmers arguing for free trade as an example of the Bootleggers and Baptists idea, even though I whole-heartedly agree with the policy they propose.

    I personally think animals such as pigs have moral standing (I don’t think we need to treat them with dignity or other such nonsense, but I do think animal suffering is a bad thing). I’m not really sure what to think about government intervention to protect animal welfare. Many people think we just shouldn’t worry about animal suffering, and I don’t have any argument other than a basic moral intuition to suggest they’re wrong.

    I’m pretty sure import tariffs on pork, which is what the farmers suggested, aren’t the best response to animal cruelty, though.

  2. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:

    @Brad Taylor

    Indeed – I think the farmers are probably being self-interested instead of socially focused.

    I wasn’t trying to disagree with your post at all I just wanted to show where the value judgment that we should intervene could come in – it involves assuming that non-humans have some intrinsic value associated with them.

    I think labeling is the first, and most important, step in getting an optimal outcome – an immediate import tariff is not 🙂

  3. Homepaddock
    Homepaddock says:

    Animals won’t be any better off if changing standards result in a flood of cheaper imported pork from countries with lower standards.

    But if imports are stopped – or taxed – on animal welfare grounds we could be accused of imposing non-tarrif barriers.

  4. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:


    “Animals won’t be any better off if changing standards result in a flood of cheaper imported pork from countries with lower standards.

    But if imports are stopped – or taxed – on animal welfare grounds we could be accused of imposing non-tarrif barriers.”

    The key issue here is quantifying the “intrinsic right” of the animal. If we force labeling of pork then people will make informed decisions – and the only reason we may want to introduce a tax is if we believe in some intrinsic right for the animal to enjoy nicer conditions.

    I don’t think we should necessarily FORCE anyone to produce non-stall pork – if it is that important to us then the tax on stall produce pork will be so high that it wouldn’t be economical to sell it in NZ anyway.

    If this is the case, pork that is created from non-stall farms overseas would NOT get taxed – and I don’t think we can be accused of applying too much of a barrier in that case. New Zealander’s are allowed to value the welfare of animals after all.

    The main concern would be if people used the guise of valuing animal welfare to line their own pockets – this is a cost that must be weighed up when looking at actually introducing any such policy.

  5. DanT
    DanT says:

    Interesting discussion. Agree that a tax would be the most efficient way, assuming efficiency in application etc. Provided that the ‘efficient’ outcome of a tax were close enough to regulating it can conceivably be more efficient (in the overall sense) to use a regulation – cheaper etc (and conceivably much less efficient – ie it is easy to comply and pay a tax, but in the face of a ban there is an incentive to go black market). But it really depends on the facts and would require some detailed analysis.

    I wonder if it is too simplifying to assume that people will just put a ‘value’ on free range vs non? Admittedly, if there is labelling search costs will be low, but there needs to be some kind of guarantee of what different labels mean etc – at the moment there is a wide discrepency in what exactly ‘free range’ eggs means, between the different labels. There are likely to be some interesting behavioural economics interactions here also about revealed preferences, behaviour, and psychology.

  6. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:


    Quality of information is definitely important. However, if stall and non-stall is clearly defined it shouldn’t be a problem. I think the definition of free range is a bit more variable 😛

    Once the definition is set, I’m confident that the related market will take account of everything – except any intrinsic animal right. This is an important issue.

    I can imagine a day when people find eating meat immoral – I am glad that day is not now 🙂

  7. goonix
    goonix says:

    To me, providing the consumer with information is the key here. There seems no better way to improve the plight of pigs/other animals then to inform consumers of exactly what it is they are buying.

  8. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:



    However, even once we do this it does not ensure that the solution is optimal – as animal welfare has some value on top of the value humans associate with it. This is a secondary issue though, one that should be thought about AFTER we have made sure that consumers are informed 😉

  9. rauparaha
    rauparaha says:

    I’m not sure that you need an animal rights approach here: it doesn’t really accord all that well with a utilitarian framework. Singer’s idea about utility maximisation including the suffering felt by animals seems to me to fit much better with economists’ view of the world. If we care about suffering in general then welfare maximisation definitely requires taking animals’ suffering and happiness into account.

  10. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:


    I’m being a utilitarian and abusing lingo. Effectively the “animal right” i’m mentioning is merely the animals intrinsic happiness. Hence why I’m being a good economists and advocating an externality tax, and saying that it is in some sense quantifiable.

  11. Bill Bennett
    Bill Bennett says:

    I would buy free range pork tomorrow if I could find it in my butchers or supermarket. The fact that none is visible is a either because there isn’t any free range pork, or the people who produce it are too clueless to let the consumer know. This is a failure of some sort.

    I have seen free range pork in restaurants.

    Chicken farmers learnt the benefits of this ages ago. We automatically buy the free-range eggs and free-range chicken. A free range chicken is about three times the price of the frozen, caged product. I suspect the price reflects the cost of more humane farming plus a hefty mark-up because of less competitive pressure.

    Ethics aside, I’d be prepared to pay the price mainly because it tastes so much better.

  12. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:

    @Paul Walker

    Indeed – very true.

    Also I completely agree with your mechanism for potentially improving outcomes.

    The only thing I would add is what I mentioned in this post – that such a mechanism doesn’t take into account the welfare of the pigs. As a result, there could still be an argument for intervention when consumers have full information if we believe animal welfare matters.

  13. Paul Walker
    Paul Walker says:

    Why no Coaseian bargaining? Animal welfare groups or the government could bargain with the pork industry to remove the use of stalls.

  14. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:

    @Paul Walker

    If animal welfare groups, or government, value animal welfare objectively (so no only insofar as it impacts on them), and if they are able to prevent the pork industry from functioning then yes we can have Coase bargaining.

    But if we want to strech the definition this widely then, effectively, the government setting a tax on the pork industry IS the result of Coase bargaining.

    When I said Coase bargaining could not occur I meant it in a more pure efficiency sense – as the pig can’t be paid compensation for the conditions it faces, it can’t negotiate with the farmer. As a result, the “value” with the pigs life can’t be inferred from a market transaction – we have to have a government “guessing”.

    As a result, I don’t see this as akin to Coase bargaining at all – as the actual object whose welfare we are discussing is still not involved in the market.

  15. Brad Taylor
    Brad Taylor says:

    @Matt Nolan
    Coasean bargaining could still produce the efficient outcome if the pigs can obtain credit on their future earnings, much as (I think) Posner argues that slaves can buy their freedom. Of course, we may still be worried by the distributional effects.

    I would also worry about the transaction costs of human-pig bargaining: language barriers and all that.

  16. Paul Walker
    Paul Walker says:

    Matt Nolan :
    @Paul Walker
    If animal welfare groups, or government, value animal welfare objectively (so no only insofar as it impacts on them), and if they are able to prevent the pork industry from functioning then yes we can have Coase bargaining.

    I don’t see why one of these groups could not negotiate a deal whereby they pay the industry to adopt new methods of production and be allowed to verify the changes.

  17. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:

    @Paul Walker

    Sure – but again, the issue is that they can’t observe the actual preference that the pig has. They can only guess.

    And as a result, a tax is effectively the government negotiating a Coase bargaining solution here – as it is asking for compensation to account for the pigs welfare. But, as with all externality taxes, it is imperfect as the government cannot objectively acertain the pigs preferences.

    I prefer to save “coase barginaing” for a situation where the actual third party negotiates with those involve – not for situations where the government tries to correct the externality (which is what is happening when either government or animal rights organisations do this).

  18. Paul Walker
    Paul Walker says:

    Matt Nolan :
    @Paul Walker
    Sure – but again, the issue is that they can’t observe the actual preference that the pig has. They can only guess.

    I am not suggesting that the groups knows the preferences of the pig, but they know their own preferences and can negotiate over those. If animal welfare groups want a change in production methods they can negotiate to bring this about.

    As to what the pigs want we will never know.

  19. What would Hayek say
    What would Hayek say says:

    Free range pork, like fair trade coffee is a simple way to test the market for our value judgements. Does the public feel special and therefore is willing to pay the premium for these goods? The answer going by the limited market for both products is that there is only a small niche market of people whose value judgement is backed up by a willingness to pay.

    Otherwise the rest of the public likes damn good coffee served with a croisant and ham sandwich. And having looked at antidismal I see Paul has already made this argument… dammit so many smarter people out there than me, need to differentiate my comments.

  20. rauparaha
    rauparaha says:

    Hmmm, maybe it’s all that legal ‘rights based approach’ stuff that makes this argument about Coase bargaining seem weird to me. Let me rephrase it in a way that might make more sense.

    Imagine yourself 50 years ago, or in the South of the US. Someone contends that it is unnecessary to give black people any rights or worry about what they think or legislate to improve their situation. If a bunch of white people care enough about them they can just pay the racist white people to ensure equal treatment of the black people. As long as the money keeps flowing and we have good monitoring mechanisms, the equal treatment of black people will result.

    I don’t think that those who care should have to buy the equitable treatment of those who have no voice. I think they should have a right to equitable treatment. That holds across people and animals.

  21. Brad Taylor
    Brad Taylor says:


    I look at the problem more in epistemic terms: people disagree on what an acceptable level of treatment for pigs would be. A government mandate involves one group’s judgement being taken as correct and enforced accordingly. If you leave it to the market, you get some sort of weighted average of diverse human evaluations of the moral worth of animals. Even if you think animal welfare does have moral worth apart from human preferences, relying on human preferences may be the best practical way of ‘discovering’ the appropriate level of welfare.

  22. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:

    @Paul Walker
    @What would Hayek say
    @Brad Taylor

    This still only tells us how much humans value pigs welfare though – its doesn’t tell us how much pigs value pigs welfare.

    Any market between humans will only capture how much humans value the welfare of pigs – and unless humans value the welfare of pigs just as much as pigs do this will lead to a negative externality on pigs. If we think that government should be representative of all sentient beings then this could be used as justification for a tax.

    Even if there is a group that DOES value pig welfare as much as pigs they have to be able to negotiate for an appropriate transfer – that is implicitly what a government IS doing by setting a tax.

    Of course, I agree that it is very difficult to ascertain exactly how much pigs value the comfort of not being in a stall, but I’m not convinced that merely allowing humans to trade on the fact pigs are free range will lead us to an optimal outcome. It takes us a LONG WAY there, but there is still an argument for a tax.

  23. rauparaha
    rauparaha says:

    @Matt Nolan
    I think the distribution of surplus is an issue here, too. It seems wrong for people to pay the abusers to prevent the abuse. Surely the abusers are the ones who should pay. Of course, it also seems wrong to me that one should be able to pay to inflict suffering on another creature capable of feeling pain.

  24. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:


    Distribution is definitely important – which is why it makes sense to go to government.

    However, I don’t have an issue with us paying farmers if that is the efficient solution.

    Ultimately, you have specific value judgments (namely the value of the welfare loss of pigs) here which are leading you to a conclusion where we do not compensate the farmers – that is definitely fine and can fit within the general framework.

  25. rauparaha
    rauparaha says:

    @Matt Nolan
    Well, that’s a very consequentialist framework you’re using. I’m probably being inconsistent here, since I’m not sure precisely how I view the issue, but I think your framework is inconsistent with a rights-based approach to the problem. If animals have natural rights then any tax would likely be judged insufficient to uphold that right. It would be equivalent to abolishing the crime of murder and rather imposing a high price to pay in order to kill someone.

    I think the idea of an efficient solution results from your preference for a utilitarian approach to the problem. If one were to take a more deontological approach then the resulting moral judgment might be different.

  26. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:


    That is only because a deontological approach has implicit value judgments in it – if we made those explicit it would be consistent with utilitarianism. Ultimately, if we are willing to value something “infinitely” this is still an assumption – stating that we are using a different moral framework is merely a way of cloaking the assumption 😉

    As I said earlier “rights based” was the wrong term to use on my part as I am using utilitarianism. My fundamental point is that a market between humans may not capture the impact on pigs welfare – a factor that needs to be taken into account.

    Now if we state what we think the impact on pigs welfare is then we can move on and figure out the optimal solution – if it is infinite then a regulation banning said stall meat would be the best solution because it is cheaper to implement than a tax. However, I would still see this policy decision as a result of a defined externality on pigs.

  27. rauparaha
    rauparaha says:

    @Matt Nolan
    I don’t think that’s true. A rights-based approach judges the act of hurting the pig to be wrong and in breach of the pig’s rights. A utilitarian approach is concerned only with the harm to the pig, which is not a factor in a deontological analysis. The two approaches may have similar outcomes, but they’re fundamentally different ways of thinking about moral choices. Valuing a pig’s welfare is not necessary if the pig has a natural right.

  28. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:


    But surely the rights based approach is implicitly placing a value on what is “wrong”. If a right is a moral absolute then they are saying the sum of all negative factors associated with violating the pigs right is infinite – that is still a value judgment.

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