Food Pessimism and Liberty: Rhetoric I'll Bet Against
By Bryan Caplan
Tyler makes a strong case that libertarians should take “the new food pessimism” seriously:
The Julian Simon-savvy crowd that reads MR might
not be so impressed, but I wouldn’t write off these worries so
Note that agriculture and land markets are highly regulated around the
world and that you don’t have to read this as a story of market
failure… most energy is mispriced today. Keeping it cheap
means growing pressure on that externality, while taxing it means a
solid whack to a lot of food markets… very
often water for agriculture is subsidized and unsustainably so…
I believe these factors mean a stronger case for agricultural free
trade, rather than “localism,” yet at the same time removing the
subsidies for sprawl. Yet so far the people worried most about these
issues are often the ones with the least economically informed
answers. It would be a mistake to, say, mock Paul Ehrlich’s earlier
doom-saying predictions and ignore these problems altogether.
Tyler’s position is rhetorically tempting for libertarians: “There’s a horrible problem coming, and only free-market reforms can save us.” But I can’t honestly agree. While I support all the free-market reforms that Tyler mentions, food pessimism just isn’t credible. A century of crummy government policies has already failed to prevent a massive long-run decline in the price of food. Furthermore, as I’ve explained before, rational people of all political persuasions should habitually greet any frightening forecast with deep skepticism:
The fact that we’ve gotten as far as we have shows that true disaster must be extremely rare.
Unless fears almost always failed to materialize, we’d already be back
in the Stone Age, or plain extinct. It’s overwhelmingly unlikely that
we’ve gotten lucky a million times in a row. Thus, unlike my co-blogger,
I think there is a good reason to expect global warming models to be
milder than models predict. Namely: As a rule, disasters are milder
Now you could say: “That was then, this is now.” Maybe modern
conditions are so different that you can’t generalize from the past.
All I can say here is that social conditions have radically changed
many, many times, and we’re still here. We’ve gone from hunting and
gathering to agriculture to industrialism to the information age. We’ve
gone from tribalism to city-states to monarchy to democracy. Each step
of the way, someone could have semi-plausibly denied that the past
remained a useful guide to the future. And each step of the way,
they’ve been wrong.
I suppose that if I cared only about advancing liberty, I might want to engage in – or at least remain silent in the face of – food pessimism. But I don’t just want to advance liberty; I want to advance it honestly. And in all honestly, I’d bet against food pessimism in a heartbeat.