By Kwek Kon Yao

The government recently passed a ruling requiring importers of fish to use food grade insulated fish boxes to store and transport fish. Traders were understandably unhappy with the ruling, protesting that the usage of the more expensive boxes would add to their costs.

But where is the more fundamental opposition to this government ruling? Why has no stand of principle been made against this blatant government violation of rights?

Let us be clear on the issue here. The government has claimed that the insulated boxes keep fish more fresh—a situation that is desirable for consumers of fish. Without questioning that claim here, let us assume that these boxes do indeed keep fish more fresh. Even if that were true, however, it would serve as no justification for a government ruling forcing traders to use the new boxes.

But why? Doesn’t the government have a role to play in monitoring health and safety? Don’t we all accept that, in the interests of consumers or “the public” in general, the government is fully entitled to step in from time to time to tell us what to do?

This is, unfortunately, the all-too common misconception of the role of government today. The only way one can answer these questions in the affirmative is to presuppose that individuals are incapable of judging and making decisions for themselves.

But if we pause to think about the issue, it is not difficult to see that such assumptions are entirely unwarranted in a situation where individuals are free to judge for themselves. Suppose a trader sells some fish that is not very fresh. Consumers who prefer their fish fresh would not buy from this trader. The trader would then have to find ways to improve his product if he wishes to remain competitive.

The same analysis applies when we look at the situation from the perspective of the fish traders. If the new boxes do indeed help to maintain the freshness of the fish, and traders see that this will improve the quality of their product, they can calculate whether this will help to attract more customers, and thus, whether the boxes represent a worthwhile investment. Under the conditions of a free market, some traders may decide to switch to the new boxes, while others may not—and the ensuing competition will bear out the wisdom of one choice over the other.

What this shows is that the real issue is not one of food safety or business costs—the real issue is the freedom of the individual to think for himself and to act on his judgment—the freedom that is ours by right.

Imagine that the government suddenly declared that only one type of bread could be carried by supermarkets, on the grounds that this particular type of bread is the freshest or most nutritious. We would be up in arms over such an arbitrary, dictatorial act.

The recent government ruling on insulated fish boxes is no different, and deserves an equally strong response.

The government has no right to pass laws that not only violate our rights, but also negate our ability to think and to judge for ourselves. It has no right to impose a paternalistic control over our lives, seeking to replace the independent judgment of millions of individual Malaysians with its own, arbitrary decrees.

The proper role of government is to protect individual rights—that is, our right to live our own lives as we see fit, free from the coercive intervention of any other individual or group, so long as we respect the rights of other individuals and refrain from initiating force against them. By overstepping its proper boundaries, the government perverts its function, and transforms from an entity intended to protect our rights, into a menace that directly threatens and assaults our freedom.

It is time that more of us recognise this, and demand that our government bring all violations of our rights to an end—beginning with a repeal of the ruling on fish boxes.

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Kwek Kon Yao is a Fellow at the Institute for Democracy and Economics Affairs (IDEAS).

An edited version of this article was published in The Malaysian Insider on 9 April 2010.

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