Why not focus on welfare reforms?
The main arguments I can see for working on welfare as opposed to liberation work are: (1) it's good for movement building, (2) it gets people thinking about animal issues, (3) it contributes to an economic theory of change, and (4) it helps animals directly. Let's unpack these a bit.
(1) Welfare work is good for movement building. It's true that welfare campaigns such as OWA have been extremely successful at bringing people together. And it has to feel good to get a "win" and then move on to the next one. While I don't deny this, I don't think it's enough to overcome the negative arguments I've outlined below.
(2) It gets people thinking about animals. Welfare work puts animal issues on the table, when normally they are being ignored. The problem is, it puts the issue on the table in such a way that the real issue, liberation, isn't really on the table at all. In fact, people may think that animal welfare is being addressed and therefore that's all they need to worry about -- and if they ever hear about the idea of liberation it will sound "too radical."
(3) Welfare work helps the economic theory of change. The economic theory of change states that by raising the cost of animal-based food products and lowering the cost of plant-based and other alternatives, we shift the demand curve such that dramatically lower amounts of animal-based food products are produced. While I don't deny this, I think our ultimate goal is not to reduce the amount of animal-based food products that are produced - I think it is to change culture.
(4) Welfare work helps animals suffer less, directly. While this could be true, it is debatable due to the below concerns.
My concerns with welfare are threefold. (1) It is vulnerable to NIMBY ("Not In My Back Yard") critiques, (2) it can have a placating effect and plays into carnist ideology, and (3) it's not what I really want.
(1) If we ban gestation crates in the USA, that is going to drive up the cost of production in the US, which is going to create an increased incentive to acquire cheaper meat elsewhere, such as Mexico, Brazil, or China. Similarly, if we banned factory farming, US meat would be so absurdly expensive that there could even become a black market for cheap imported meat.
(2) When we focus on animal welfare, we are implicitly playing into the narrative that meat eating is better if the animals are treated well. This narrative lends itself to moral-relativism whereby one person justifies their conscience by saying that at least they are doing something better than the average person (in this case, they are choosing free-range instead of factory-farmed). Playing into this narrative, we completely miss out on the opportunity to address the root of the moral issue, and we miss out on the ability to discuss real solutions. As a result, it's possible that more animals end up suffering on farms, not less.
(3) I don't really want a world where animals are treated better on farms. I want a world where farms are only growing plants, and all animals are free. If I'm working on welfare reforms, then I'm missing out on the opportunity to work towards liberation, which is what I really want. The opportunity cost is significant for a movement as small as ours.