Nearly all educated observers would agree that American food has improved over the past half-century. Medium-sized cities where prime rib houses once passed for fine dining and mediocre chop suey represented the limit of “ethnic” cuisine now boast farm-to-table bistros and excellent Thai or Ethiopian restaurants. Even mass-market fast food chains like Chipotle and Panera Bread serve food that would have been considered too fancy, too spicy, or too exotic for most American palates as recently as the 1980s. On the drinks front, microbrews have flourished across the country, and American wines win international competitions. As a result, a nation once known for bland food, weak beer, and undrinkable wine now sets global food and beverage trends.
While factors ranging from immigration to wealth help explain the rise in the quality of American cuisine, a big part of the explanation stems from an extensive, bipartisan, measured effort to roll back burdensome food regulations. Liberty-minded people seeking change in other fields could learn a lot from the movements that have changed the way Americans eat.
The environment that produced generally bad American food and drink had numerous, intertwined public policy causes. Prohibition laws from the late 19th century onward, for example, closed nearly all beer- and wine-makers, while the heavy-handed alcohol regulatory systems established in the 1930s gave a distinct advantage to the biggest, richest players. In many states, food safety laws made it almost illegal to sell bread, pickles, and jams without a major commercial kitchen. Street-vending bans also made it impossible for aspiring entrepreneurs to serve food without obtaining sizable restaurant loans first.
The gradual rollback of these federal and state laws helped facilitate the flourishing of American cuisine today. Brewpubs, smaller wineries, and craft distilled spirits all emerged following the federal legalization of home brewing, the passage of state laws allowing on-premises sales of beer and wine by producers, and subsequent court rulings allowing interstate booze shipment. A repeal of street-vending laws allowed food trucks to proliferate. And in recent years, “cottage food” laws have passed state legislatures from California to Alabama, allowing smaller-scale bakers, briners, and jam-makers to sell homemade goods so long as they pass a food safety course.
Furthermore, while the changes in food and drink laws are a libertarian triumph, the people and places that lead the American food revolution rarely lean right. None of the major cities that have witnessed a food truck renaissance are run by self-identified conservatives. The states that began the microbrew revolution—Oregon, Washington, and Colorado—are decidedly blue. Likewise, over 95 percent of American wine comes from states that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Insofar as the new American culinary movement has a philosophy, it is primarily a progressive one focused on issues like the environment and nutrition. For example, Alice Waters—perhaps the most prominent proponent of the seasonally oriented philosophy that epitomizes so much of new American cooking—is also an advocate for progressive political causes.
It appears that the movement has succeeded so broadly—and has had such appeal to those on the left as well as the right—because it has taken a measured approach that produced short-term benefits. Fundamental, widely supported food safety laws, like federal meat processing inspections and mandates that restaurants have sanitation managers on-site, are very difficult to challenge. Such laws emerged as a result of real problems, and doing away with them hastily would cause real harm. On the other hand, narrow legal changes which, initially at least, tend to support individual entrepreneurs can produce significant benefits with few obvious social costs. It worked for food and beverage, and it’s a model that people looking to deregulate fields ranging from energy production to professional licensing should learn from.
Eli Lehrer is President and a co-founder of the R Street Institute.