Animal Welfare is Animal Abolition

Gary Francione is known for promoting what he calls the "abolitionist approach" to animal rights. Essentially, this means he is against improving the welfare of farm animals via legislation, viewing this as ineffective or even counter-productive. Instead, he argues that we should be unequivocal that veganism is the "moral baseline" of mankind.

The name comes from slavery: "abolitionists" were those who argued that any form of slavery was immoral, and must be eradicated immediately. This is opposed to general "anti-slavery activists" who wanted a gradual phase out of some, or perhaps all, slavery.

An under-appreciated point is that very few anti-slavery activists were actually abolitionists, and the term was more often used to slander the Republican party. Just as Obama increased government funding for health care and was labeled a "socialist," Abraham Lincoln ran on a platform of slightly improving the well-being of slaves and was labeled an "abolitionist." (He supported, for example, the Corwin Amendment which would have amended the Constitution to ensure slavery in states where it already existed - hardly an abolitionist stance.)

Even when Lincoln had the war-time power to issue "Executive Orders" (i.e. laws which didn't have to pass Congress), his famous Emancipation Proclamation did not, despite your 8th grade history textbook, made slavery illegal. It only freed about 75% of current slaves, and said nothing about the practice of slavery itself. (Slavery was later made illegal by the 13th amendment.)

The moral of this history lesson is that change is slow, and often requires making deals with the devil.

But I digress. The point I wanted to make is that there really is no way to work towards improving animal welfare without working towards abolition. This comes from what economists call the Law of Demand:

Consumers buy more of a good when its price decreases and less when its price increases.

This law is self-evident enough that I don't think it requires any argumentation. To make clear its relevance, we can rewrite it:

Consumers buy less meat when its price increases, due to increased regulations in the form of larger cages, more frequent veterinary inspections, etc.

We can in fact directly calculate the "abolition coefficient" of a welfare change. The elasticity of demand is a measure of how demand for a good changes relative to its price. Because we live in a country bloated with agricultural subsidies, armies of economists are employed to predict how demand for various animal products changes with price. Here's a table taken from Huang:


Elasticity is a measurement of percent change. So for beef, a 10% increase in price leads to 6.1% fewer cows on factory farms.

The precise calculation of how much a given law will change the lives of animals is of course complex. But the important thing to note is that these elasticities are always negative - more expensive meat always leads to less meat. Always.

(An important consideration is to wonder if increasing the price of chicken will just drive people to eating beef instead, a rather dubious gain. You can see from e.g. Eales and Unnevehr that, while this does happen to some degree, people do substitute vegetables for meat, meaning that there is a real gain.)


  1. Nice to see you thinking about animal ethics. Unfortunately this post is confused and misrepresenting Francione on several levels. I’ll try to hopefully clarify some points…

    (1) Francione does not rely on an argument about US civil rights history. The term abolitionist is mostly technical to denote subscription to the key goal of the animal rights movement: The abolition of the property status of nonhuman animals.

    (2) I actually remember Francione saying in an online discussion that the taxing of meat can, in his opinion, not be treated with his theory for any other welfare-campaign. (or more precisely as a “Single-Issue-Campaign”) Unfortunately I can’t find a link to that statement…

    (3) Your analytical focus is tied to the supply-side of animal exploitation. One of Francione’s arguments observes that any structure on the supply-side of animal use is replaceable. People embracing ethical veganism are not.

    Probably your most controversial assumption lies in the statement “that there really is no way to work towards improving animal welfare without working towards abolition” You assume welfare is actually a threat to animal exploitation and makes production inefficient and more expensive. That is the narrative of the exploiter and of the welfare groups who are making a living from this narrative. But is this true? Francione argues that (4) Welfare does not necessarily increase prices. All to the contrary: One central conclusion from the arguments that he unfolds in Animals Property and the Law (p.114) is that “the ›rights‹ supposedly created by these [animal welfare] laws simply serve to facilitate our use of a ›balancing‹ process to decide animal issues, but because these regulatory laws do not create rights, the entire balancing process is futile. As Nozick suggests, we have Kantianism for humans and utilitarianism for animals. Such a system provides only that level of protection that is consistent with facilitating the use of animals as means to human ends. Any utilitarian considerations in favor of animals are, in light of the property status of animals, likely to establish that level of animal protection consistent with maximizing the wealth represented by animal ›resources‹.“ His analysis suggests that “[w]elfarist regulation […] will, for the most part, do nothing but make animal exploitation more efficient.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      My position is that what Francione calls "new welfarism" (i.e. striving for abolition via welfare improvements) has worked historically (in the case of slavery) and is working today (via economic mechanisms). I don't intend this to be a critique of Prof. Francione - to the extent that I disagree with him on this issue I appreciate his work for the animals even more.

      Regarding my "most controversial assumption" - you're absolutely correct that welfare improvements can lead to greater profits for abusers. It's just that if the industry is resistant to making a change, it's because it will decrease their profit. And so the mere fact that we need to agitate for a change proves its worth.

  2. > [T]here really is no way to work towards improving animal welfare without working towards abolition.

    When I first read this, I thought you meant, "Working towards abolition is the only way to improve animal welfare." But if I understand you, what you actually mean is "Improving animal welfare necessarily works towards abolition." Is that correct?