Libertarians often get worked up over issues that seem trivial to others. I recall more than a few snickers years ago about libertarians and their obsession with stuff like “drinking raw milk.” What makes raw milk such a big deal? Why make such a fuss if a farmer in Wisconsin is told he can’t produce or drink unpasteurized milk? Aren’t there more important things to worry about?

At the object level, yes, there are many things more important than the kind of milk one drinks. But the object level isn’t always the right view. Seemingly trivial issues can ultimately turn on issues of great importance, and the raw milk case is one such event. It’s worth looking at why that is.

Briefly, a couple who owned a small dairy farm wanted to be able to sell raw milk through their private store to shareholders of their herd, as well as drink the milk they had produced on their farm. The government said no, the case went through the court system, and the farmers lost. To some, this might look like an unfortunate ruling but still not worth getting too worried about. But a closer look reveals why this case is much more significant than it might appear, because of what exactly the courts said when they issued their ruling.

In the ruling dismissing the appeal of the farmers, the courts agreed with the claims of  the FDA and the Department of Health and Human Services that, among other things, “There Is No Generalized Right to Bodily and Physical Health,” writing in support of this claim that “Plaintiffs’ assertion of a ‘fundamental right to their own bodily and physical health, which includes what foods they do and do not choose to consume for themselves and their families’ is similarly unavailing because plaintiffs do not have a fundamental right to obtain any food they wish.” The court also agreed that “There is no fundamental right to freedom of contract.”

In a later ruling meant to clarify the position of the court, Judge Patrick Fiedler wrote:

no, Plaintiffs do not have a fundamental right to own and use a dairy cow or a dairy herd;

no, Plaintiffs do not have a fundamental right to consume the milk from their own cow;

no, Plaintiffs do not have a fundamental right to produce and consume the foods of their choice.

Notice how strong the language is in these rulings. The courts are not making the (comparatively) moderate claim that people have a right to eat as they wish or preserve their health as they see fit, or to engage in voluntary private contracts, but that these rights can be overridden by some compelling public need and that this is one such case. Instead, the courts, FDA, and HHS maintain that you have no such rights to begin with. To the extent that you currently eat as you wish, or maintain your health as you see fit, that is only allowed if your chosen means of doing so align with what the state has decided should be permitted. But if the state decides everyone should adopt, say, a vegan, plant-based diet, according to these rulings, you would have no grounds to object. After all, what kinds of food you eat was, apparently, never your decision to make in the first place. That choice belongs to the state.

So what looks like a trivial worry over raw milk actually involves serious questions about bodily autonomy and free choice, with implications going far beyond the milk offerings available in a private store on a small farm. To badly paraphrase a certain poet –

First they came for raw milk, and I did not speak out, because I did not drink raw milk

But they haven’t come just for raw milk. They came for, and took, bodily autonomy, contract rights, property rights, rights to health, and even the right to decide how you wish to eat. That’s why raw milk matters – and that’s why libertarians were and are right to be alarmed by its infringement.


Kevin Corcoran is a Marine Corps veteran and a consultant in healthcare economics and analytics and holds a Bachelor of Science in Economics from George Mason University.