Joining the animal-protection movement as a conservative can feel a little like being a defector. There’s a necessary period of assimilation and some nearly anthropological intel-gathering as you attempt to make sense of your surroundings. Veganism, body art, knowing what a pangolin is: These are common trappings of a culture much removed from that of many red-state residents and from my own as a former Republican Senate staffer. But as I’ve grown more familiar with the issues over time, one thing has become abundantly clear: Animal welfare is a fundamentally conservative cause.
As a conservative, I value small government and individual liberty. Though I teeter on the precipice of libertarianism, I believe that state intervention is essential to defend the nation and to conserve our natural resources, including wildlife. For any right-leaning voter, clear entry points to the animal-welfare movement are respect for tradition and for the covenant between present and unborn generations, and a belief in personal responsibility for the environment (property). Ideologically and etymologically, conservation and conservatism derive from the same wellspring.
Take agribusiness, a case study in big government. This year, government will give billions in handouts to large farming operations despite growing moral opposition to industrial agriculture and despite economic momentum that favors alternative methods. Prominent among the handouts will be those to animal-feed producers, whose corn and soybean crops sustain the millions of creatures living pitiful lives in factory farms. This is nothing less than government-sponsored welfare to livestock producers, who are insulated from market shifts thanks to the low costs for their feed.
Farm animals are under constant assault by legislators who would rather curb human freedoms than stand up to bureaucrats more concerned with money than mercy.
On the state level, farm animals are under constant assault by legislators who would rather curb human freedoms than stand up to bureaucrats more concerned with money than mercy. In state after state, we’ve seen legislatures pass “ag-gag” bills to prevent journalists and animal-protection advocates from documenting the unbridled abuse and rampant health hazards of big agricultural operations. In Oklahoma and elsewhere, legislatures have attempted to prohibit animal-protection groups from participating in the political process at all, introducing legislative bans on their ability to fund-raise in the state. These are Stalinist infringements on fundamental speech rights. Conservatives are supposed to be the staunchest defendants of the Constitution, yet in these red-state enclaves, power often trumps constitutional principles.
Commendably, some states have instituted more humane farming practices. California, for instance, passed Proposition 2 in 2008 to require standards of decency in the confinement of farm animals. But rather than celebrate this sane and philosophically conservative exercise of federalist principles, Oklahoma and Missouri, among other states, have brought suits attacking the measures, despite repeated court rulings upholding their constitutionality.
Preventing cruelty to animals is philosophically consistent with the economic and moral principles of conservatism.
Indeed, the level of innovation in the food industry right now is nothing short of revolutionary. Companies such as Beyond Meat and Hampton Creek, both based in California, are working to take animals out of the production process altogether, creating delicious, plant-based foods. Meanwhile, more and more farmers are switching to cage-free production, recognizing that consumers, in a seismic shift in public opinion, look askance at extreme confinement of animals. The Humane Society of the United States has worked with McDonald’s, Starbucks, and other major food companies to implement stronger animal-welfare standards in their supply chains. Recently, Walmart — the nation’s largest food retailer — announced it would source all its eggs from cage-free operations. And, time and again, companies that embrace better animal-welfare standards are rewarded with increased profits. Following SeaWorld’s recent announcement that it would end its controversial orca-breeding program, the company’s stock price shot up 16.4 percent.
Animal protection isn’t just an abstract economic debate. There are also real lives at stake — notably, the billions of chickens, cows, and pigs that are killed each year for food. The vast majority of these animals are raised in abject misery, never to set foot outside their cramped, squalid confines. Chickens in particular face an ugly destiny, genetically manipulated to facilitate artificial growth or stuffed in tiny cages where they can barely move for the duration of their lives. As former Bush speechwriter Matthew Scully has written, “You just don’t treat life that way.”
Scully is not alone in this belief. In a 2015 encyclical, Pope Francis wrote:
Our indifference or cruelty towards fellow creatures of this world sooner or later affects the treatment we mete out to other human beings. We have only one heart, and the same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships with other people. Every act of cruelty towards any creature is “contrary to human dignity.”
Such arguments should resonate with conservatives and serve as a rational counterpoint to the vacuous rhetoric of rootsy masculinity served up by those who would profit from acts of cruelty against the meek and helpless. We should not issue top-down mandates to control people’s eating habits, but it is incumbent upon life-affirming conservatives to recognize that animals deserve mercy — and that forward-thinking entrepreneurs deserve a level playing field. We shouldn’t try to stop states from implementing animal-friendly reforms, and we should scoff at totalitarians who would stifle our freedoms to prop up their antiquated business practices.
Most important, we must abolish the partisan divide when it comes to animal protection. Preventing cruelty to animals is philosophically consistent with the economic and moral principles of conservatism. Beyond these considerations, showing mercy toward all God’s creatures is the human — and humane — thing to do.
— John Connor Cleveland is a policy adviser and special assistant to the president of the Humane Society of the United States.