The folly of free market fundamentalism was illustrated clearly on Monday, when North Carolina GOP Senator Thom Tillis revealed that he thinks restaurants should be able to opt out of regulations requiring employees to wash their hands. The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) recommends hand washing to prevent the spread of foodborne illnesses caused by fecal and oral pathogens. However, Thom Tillis wants to take hand washing out of the legal realm and leave it up to the invisible hand of the free market.
Tillis’ bizarre argument embodies everything that is wrong with the most extreme libertarian arguments. They eliminate sensible regulations to protect public health, and replace them with naive dogma that presumes that an unfettered free market will magically fix all society’s problems. All that is needed to create a utopia, overflowing with liberty, is for the government to get out of the way. In this simplistic worldview, government regulations become the enemy. Even simple, non-controversial regulations like requiring food servers and handlers to wash their hands after using the toilet, need to be discarded.
Tillis sees government mandated hand washing as an unfair burden on employers. Sure foodborne illness is unpleasant. However, if a few thousand people get ill from Listeria, Salmonella or Hepatitis A, eventually customers will stop eating bad food and the restaurants responsible will have to declare bankruptcy. In GOP fantasy land, prevention is not an option, but after a few food poisoning casualties, the consumer revolt will eventually win the day. So what if a few kids die with E-coli in their intestines along the way? That is just collateral damage in the battle for freedom from burdensome government regulations.
Tillis’ expressed his astonishing point of view glibly, stating:
I don’t have any problem with Starbucks if they choose to opt out of this (hand washing) policy as long as they post a sign that says we don’t require our employees to wash their hands after leaving the restroom. The market will take care of that. It’s one example.
Of course, if he wants to require a restaurant to put up a sign, isn’t that also a regulation? Why not just go the extra step and actually require hand washing then?
On Tuesday, Tillis was given an opportunity to recant or clarify his remarks. Rather than saying he doesn’t really think restaurants should be able to legally have food servers handle your lunch after using the bathroom, without first washing their hands, Tillis doubled down on his anti-regulatory rhetoric. On Tuesday, Tillis proclaimed:
Sometimes there are regulations that maybe we want to set a direction, but then let those who are regulated decide whether or not it makes sense.
So basically Tillis’ position is that restaurants should choose their own regulations. Brilliant idea, Thom. Presumably, coal mines, factories and chicken processing plants should also be able to decide which regulations they deem necessary. Never mind public safety or public health, let the market decide. This is the folly of conservative regulatory logic. It puts the dirty hands of the market in your food, arguing that the government has no business telling the cook at your local diner that he or she must wash his hands before preparing your meal.
Sorry, Mr. Tillis, but my right to eat safe food trumps any company’s right to let their employees make my sandwich with fecal matter on their hands, simply because they don’t like government regulations. Anti-government rhetoric remains popular with conservative voters. However, when anti-regulatory politicians like Thom Tillis abandon common sense in favor of dogmatic ideology, it endangers public health. Honestly, the idea that company’s should be able to opt out of basic sanitation requirements is not only patently absurd, it is also just plain gross.
Keith Brekhus is a progressive American who currently resides in Red Lodge, Montana. He is co-host for the Liberal Fix radio show. He holds a Master’s Degree in Sociology from the University of Missouri. In 2002, he ran for Congress as a Green Party candidate in the state of Missouri. In 2014, he worked as a field organizer for Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick’s successful re-election bid in Arizona’s 1st Congressional District. He can be followed on Twitter @keithbrekhus or on Facebook.