Mr. Ed goes to Washington

Jacob Sullum
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Posted: Nov 08, 2006 12:01 AM
Mr. Ed goes to Washington

Horses are nice. Killing them for food is mean. This is the gist of the argument for the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act.

It was enough to convince the House of Representatives, which passed the bill by a vote of 263 to 146 in September. If the ban makes it to the floor of the Senate after Congress reconvenes this month, we are likely to see another lopsided victory for arbitrary sentimentality.

Not content at trying to stop foreigners from catering to Americans' taste for gambling, Congress is on the verge of passing a law aimed at stopping Americans from catering to foreigners' taste for horsemeat. I generally avoid the phrase "cultural imperialism," since it's often used by people who object to the voluntary consumption of American products by non-Americans. But when Americans want to forcibly impose their culinary preferences on people in other countries, it fits pretty well.

As supporters of the horse slaughter ban never tire of reminding us, Americans are not big horse eaters. The three U.S. plants that slaughter horses, two in Texas and one in Illinois, cater mainly to consumers in countries such as France, Belgium, Germany and Japan. Since the plants are owned by foreigners and serve a foreign market, the National Horse Protection Coalition asserts, "no U.S. interests are involved."

What about the Americans who work in the plants or sell horses to them? What about the U.S. interests in fairness, tolerance, property rights and some modicum of logic in the formulation of public policy?

The horse lovers (the ones who want to save them, not the ones who like to eat them) argue that the horsemeat industry's transportation and slaughter methods are inhumane. Similar concerns have been raised, sometimes justifiably, about the slaughter of other animals, but the critics generally do not insist that the only way to minimize the animals' suffering is to stop eating them.

Supporters of the horse slaughter ban do not want to make the industry less cruel; they want to eliminate it. You can start to see why the bill makes beef, pork, dairy and egg producers nervous. As a (pro-ban) Washington Times editorial put it, the bill's opponents worry that "these crazy animal rights groups will come after their livestock next."

Pshaw, replies the National Horse Protection Coalition. "Talk about paranoia!" it says in a full-page New York Times ad. "The fact is, we don't know of a single vegetarian on our board but can mention a few enlightened hunters and anglers who are able to make the distinction between a horse and a cow."

Perhaps they can enlighten me as well: What is the legally relevant distinction between a horse and a cow? Is it aesthetic? Lambs are awfully cute. Is the issue intelligence? Pigs are pretty smart. The absence of vegetarians from the board of the National Horse Protection Coalition will not prevent other people from citing the horse slaughter ban while arguing that Congress should protect their favorite animals.

The bill says horses "deserve compassion and protection" because they "play a vital role in the collective experience of the United States." I'm not completely sure what that means, but it does not bode well for fans of bison meat. The bill also says horses, unlike cows and pigs, "are used primarily for recreation, pleasure and sport." If it's the fun-to-food ratio that matters, Americans will have to stop slaughtering pigs once enough of us keep them as pets.

The arbitrariness of such distinctions becomes clear when you talk to someone with a different perspective on these matters. My wife once discussed the strange American custom of treating cats like family members with a souvenir vendor in Guangzhou, China. Upon learning that we have three cats, the woman asked, "Are they fat?" One of them is a bit chubby, my wife admitted. "Oh, you should eat him," the woman said. "They're delicious."