Cheap Food Comes with a Big Price Tag

It’s never been easy to know what to make of self-styled free-marketers who see global capitalism as a real-life instantiation of their values. Given the deep and decisive role of state violence in the creation of global capitalism, they’re either unaware of the basic facts, and so unqualified for their positions, or engaged in a project of active dishonesty. We must assume it’s the former. At Liberty Fund’s Econlib site, Pierre Desrochers laments “the increased popularity of the local food movement,” which, he argues, translates in practice to “the very definition of wealth destruction.” Writes Desrochers,

Alternative food system activists who believe the time to make excuses for agri-business is over and that we must radically change the way we do things should perhaps ponder a bit longer why countless people worked so long and so hard to develop our globalized food supply chain.

Taken on its own terms, the argument is plausible: it doesn’t make sense, for example, to grow pineapples in North Dakota, which would be horribly inefficient, energy-intensive, and harmful to the natural environment on net. But Desrochers doesn’t quite get around to explaining just how it is that food from thousands of miles away could be cheaper than food from a local, biodiverse farm down the road. Defenders of global agri-business — with its collusive land theft; its clear-cutting, monoculture, and destruction of priceless ecosystems; its criminalization of traditional practices existing outside of the corporate global market; its “piracy of knowledge and biodiversity of the poor of the world”; its campaign of violence against tribal peoples, peasants, and nature itself — should perhaps ponder a bit longer why countless people have worked (and continue to work) so long and so hard to fight a neocolonialist system, cynically called “free trade,” imposed and maintained through the physical enclosures of productive lands and the enclosures of ideas themselves as the private intellectual property rights of rich Western companies. Too many free-market types want to pretend that economics alone — that is, absent insights from sociology, politics, or history — gives us all the explanation we need. They repeat the watchwords “specialization,” “comparative advantage,” and “free trade” as if hundreds of years of global capitalism and its precursors were simply peaceful, libertarian phenomena. What the moment seems to call for is a new history of global capitalism, a history that damns global capitalism precisely because it represents the culmination of generations of crimes against individual liberty and free markets. Here in the real world, making palm oil, for example, so inexpensive has meant subsidizing big business to the tune of billions and irreparably harming both people and their places, some of the most complex ecosystems on the only planet we have. 

As Pádraig Carmody and David Taylor observe, discussing land theft within the African context, “In effect, land grabs represent a reinscription and deepening of sociospatial power inequalities associated with previous eras.” The violent, state-backed dispossession of people living in the global South is among the most salient features of the processes associated with capitalist globalization. To ignore it, to pretend that our food is so cheap because we embraced the liberal system of free trade, is laughable on its face. But, importantly, the observation of such facts entails no “denial of comparative advantage” in principle, but an affirmation of libertarian ideas and a recognition of the evidence before us. We might have assumed that defenders of market mechanisms and of sound economic principles would know better than to merely repeat the dogma that local food is actually more expensive without asking why or looking to see the extreme violations of their beloved free market that underlie such cheap prices. Do the prices really reflect economic conditions? Or are they the result of a process that subsidized big agri-business and left colonized peoples bereft of their rightful inheritance. To facilely suggest that food from afar is less expensive as a matter of course, as a natural and inevitable result of specialization and trade, is the height of naivety. Again, believing that most people come by their opinions honestly and promote them in good faith, we must assume naivety, a common condition among those who confuse capitalism and simple freedom of exchange. 

That it is less than polite for a comparatively rich, white Westerner to challenge the conventional narrative I readily admit. But it’s clearly necessary to remind capitalism’s apologists that the defenders of a food system that is local, ecologically and socially sustainable, and not monopolized by politically-privileged corporate power have in fact pondered our globalized food supply chain for many decades now. Economists know economics, but they often seem willfully blind to history and politics as confounding factors operating on the law of supply and demand. This is nothing new, of course. Here, the American land reformer and libertarian Joshua King Ingalls was characteristically perceptive:

It cannot fail to be seen how appropriate is the teaching of ‘laissez-faire’ by the professors and scholars produced by institutions supported and upheld by the very opposite practice. That such institutions do not encourage any investigation of the industrial problem is not to be wondered at.

If we’re serious about testing the validity of the prices we see in our grocery stores, we in the rich West have a moral, social, political duty to return the land to the people who own it — the people who worked it for millennia before colonists stole it. As Vandana Shiva observed more than twenty years ago, our deepest obligations to both each other and the biosphere were redefined as crimes, as a partnership of state and corporate power laid the groundwork for the environmentally and socially destructive system that rules the world today. Not only is corporate globalization predicated upon clear violations of stated libertarian principles, it has predictably resulted in just the kind of lifeless authoritarian system libertarians say they don’t like — a system of, in David Graeber’s words, “total bureaucratization.” Graeber couldn’t have described global capitalism more astutely when he observed “the gradual fusion of public and private power into a single entity, rife with rules and regulations whose ultimate purpose is to extract wealth in the form of profits.”

In some of the very poorest and hungriest countries in the world, governments and powerful corporations have for decades worked together to establish industrial farms designed to feed people in other countries. In a legitimate free market, this is unobjectionable. In a historically violent system in which the people who live in these places are victimized and cut out of the decision-making process, cheap food comes at a high price. Must all libertarians necessarily be back-to-the-land localists? It’s hard to say. What is much easier to say is that the global food system we see in practice is much less about the merits of comparative advantage than it is about stealing from people less powerful.

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