The Parable of Only Kosher Delis

Bishop William Lori, chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, gave his ”Parable of the Kosher Deli” during his Feb. 16th testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The parable brilliantly demonstrates the absurdity and unconstitutionality of the HHS contraception mandate and the importance of religious liberty. While I have complete respect for Bishop Lori, and for the U.S. Bishops in general, I continue to be discouraged by some bishops’ advocacy for “universal health care.” My discouragement stems not from what I know their goal to be: health care that is available to all in need. Rather, my discouragement stems from what seems to be a misunderstanding of how universal health care is enacted in practice. If you ask anyone on the street who would provide “universal health care,” they would ultimately say “the government.” And so, with apologies to Bishop Lori…

"Could I have a heart transplant?" "Sorry, we sold out hours ago." Pic by caribb

I would like to tell a story. Let’s call it The Parable of Only Kosher Delis. Once upon a time, a new law is proposed, so that restaurants and grocery stores may no longer be privately owned. Like buying stamps or getting your driver’s license, if you want to buy food you would have to get it from a government-run kosher deli. You want Chinese food? I don’t think they serve that at kosher delis.

Those who support the “Kosherization” argue, “The cost of food keeps rising, and many people starve each night from malnutrition.” Other supporters say, “Food is too much of a necessity to be left to greedy restaurateurs and grocers.” Still others say, “God commands us to follow kosher laws in the Old Testament, so we have a religious obligation to pass this law.”

The leadership of a major religious group in the U.S. praises the intent of the nationalization of the retail food industry because “It will guarantee that all people have access to free food,” but object to specific language in this particular Kosherization law because it doesn’t provide adequate conscience protections. Dissident groups within this religion lend their full backing to the Kosherization law; not surprisingly since these groups recognize that the law ostensibly achieves what the leadership has advocated for decades.

But in our hypothetical, those arguments fail in the public debate, because people widely (well, maybe not) recognize the following:

  1. The cost of food keeps rising because (as discussed previously) employer-provided “food insurance” provides an incentive for people to buy more food than they need, pushing up demand and therefore price. Since employees do not buy food directly, but rather have regular contributions withheld from their paychecks that go to a “food insurance company” who then pays the grocer or restaurant when the employee buys food, the employee has no incentive at all to pay attention to price since “insurance is paying for it.” If you don’t know the price, you tend to overbuy. Overbuying pushes up the price.
  2. Many people may indeed starve, and this is a tragedy. But many others who would otherwise starve are helped by the charitable efforts of others. Unfortunately, the Kosherization will diminish the presumed need for soup kitchens. Further, some people may appear to starve but are simply choosing to not eat for a meal or two. Some other people may not want to visit restaurants or grocery stores at all, preferring instead to grow their own food.
  3. God does command us to care for those in need, and we do have a religious obligation to help them. The methods by which we help them, however, can be in greater or lesser accord with good policy, sound reason, and basic economics. Just because we have a religious obligation to feed the poor does not mean that every conceivable plan that results in the poor receiving food is laudable.

Does the fact that large majorities in society want Kosherization (i.e., like the prospect of getting something for nothing) make it permissible for the government to take over every restaurant and grocery store in the nation? In a nation committed to economic liberty and diversity, the answer, of course, is: No.

“Foodies” and others who enjoy a variety of food options express outrage at the blatant government nationalization of one-sixth of our economy that reduces their restaurant and grocery options to one: kosher. They are joined by economists who note that “free” Kosher food for all creates a huge excess demand, where those wanting food dramatically exceeds the ability of the (state-owned) grocers and restaurants to provide it. The zero price encourages more consumption of food while it discourages people from wanting to produce food. The state is forced to ration food to those it deems need it most; if you’re fat, go to the back of the line. Even if you’re not fat you still have to wait behind all those people who drove to the deli and got in line before you.

In frustration, the people at the back of the line go home and attempt to make food themselves. Since Kosherization required the confiscation of all food-preparation utensils, these people have to make do with tools or whatever else they can find, often injuring themselves in the process of making dinner.

This story has a happy ending: The government recognized that it is absurd for it to nationalize an industry that would provide better and cheaper products if not for the excessive regulation and convoluted tax issues that it imposes.

Will our nation continue to be one committed to economic liberty and diversity? Will the bishops who are vocal in supporting the law mandating “universal health care” recognize that it may not mean in practice what they think it means in theory?

I urge, in the strongest possible terms, that the answer must be: Yes. Thank you for your attention.