Bryan Caplan  

Food Pessimism and Liberty: Rhetoric I'll Bet Against

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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 quickly...  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 than predicted.

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.
 

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COMMENTS (12 to date)
Philo writes:

Well said. Tyler's case is very weak. Poor governmental policies don't ruin us, because "there is a deal of ruin" not just in a nation but in mankind altogether.

david writes:

... if the past had remained a useful guide to the future, shouldn't we all still be living in a Malthusian trap?

Ted writes:

Uh, wait, you've think we've gone a long time as a species? We are only a couple hundred thousands years old, that's a blip. That's nothing in the course of the earth's history. I wouldn't get so cocky considering our Homo relatives are dead and we've been around for only 200,000 years.

Also, your arguments against climate models are seem pretty dumb. You should attempt to argue your points on merits, not on some bogus historical extrapolation. Furthermore, I don't remember any serious scientific consensus that also suggested any disaster on anything in modern times. I would be interested for you to find a scientific consensus that argued a "disaster" was coming in modern history (if you cite Population Bomb, I won't take you seriously since most scientists only believe it was a slight possibility, at best). Also, climate models are probabilistic since it's incredibly difficult to account for behavior over that long of horizon. Also, the probabilities it generates for complete and utter catastrophe are actually quite small, but one could argue we need to act as an insurance policy. They also say nothing about humans ability to adapt to changes by technology. So, your argument seems misguided.

infopractical writes:

I don't feel qualified to have an opinion on this one. But it may be worth considering that the types of crummy government policies we're facing now are different than what they were in the past, so it's worth considering exactly what these policies are, how they're likely to change, and whether or not technology can and will keep up with the damage caused by crummy policies.

N. writes:

Bryan,

I find the sentiment expressed in your last paragraph so inspiring it actually brings tears to my eyes.

Thanks.

agnostic writes:

The real pessimism about food is that wealthier countries are starting to reverse the gains that the Julian Simon link mentions about doubling or tripling the amount of animal protein (and fat) that Europeans saw by the mid-19th C.

Namely, in the late '70s and early '80s, the government began scaring everyone into becoming nearly de facto vegans. And now the big shots in developing countries emulate these bogus ideas about cutting out fat and animal products and eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables instead. They wouldn't want to look low-status and backward by promoting meat, eggs, and dairy!

Fortunately there are some hold-outs of flesh-eaters, like the Dutch and Swedes, who are not surprisingly among the tallest people in the world, despite having been fairly short during the 19th C.

It looks unlikely that we'll see Ehrlich-style starvation, but it's hardly an endorsement for optimism if most of the world's people are living on soy derivatives and corn syrup, with all the symptoms of Metabolic Syndrome that this will entail (obesity, type II diabetes, high blood pressure, hypertension, insulin resistance, etc.).

Tyler Cowen writes:

50-50, bet against it, for sure. But in expected value terms, it's still worth a worry.

Lord writes:

But is the previous century of energy a better guide than the last third of a century?

Eric Johnson writes:

> 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.

Unfortunately for this argument, we have barely done anything unnatural yet, mostly just behaving as a normal organism - but now this has changed bigtime.

The Industrial Age, being so very brief as of yet, does almost nothing to make an inductive case that there is little need to worry about things.

The only big unnatural thing we did before industrialization was agriculture. Agriculture is certainly fairly longstanding, at least compared to the industrial revolution. But there is no doubt that it created enormous calamities beyond all comprehension, such as the liquidation of untold millions by smallpox, cholera, and the Black Death. It also gave rise to slavery and dungeons. On the plus side, it created states, which massively suppressed the per capita volume of violence (including torture) due to crime and war. On the minus side again, many of those whom it spared from violent demise probably died of malnutrition and starvation. And those who wanted to save themselves from wasting away were frequently - whether healthy or chronically ill as so many were - forced to engage in unnatural, excruciating schedules of relentless round-the-clock hard labor, often little-preferable over death, which they were not biologically adapted to and which no hunter-gatherers ever engaged in.

Agriculture turned out to be the basis for magnificent advanced cultures, and it turned out not to pose any existential risks to the human species or to the very important aesthetic value of the natural world. So it was a big plus on balance. Yet it would be a real stretch to say "it all worked out just fine despite a few worries - really quite swimmingly." It did not. And again, agriculture is the only major unnatural thing that we have ever done on a longstanding basis, but now we have recently begun to do very many new unnatural things. The argument from Caplan is quite false.

Eric Johnson writes:

> the liquidation of untold millions by smallpox, cholera, and the Black Death.

Pardon me - it would definitely be billions if we include all the major infectious diseases that developed during the agricultural period.

Some of them may have existed before agriculture in much milder forms, but probably so different that they were like a different thing entirely. Higher host density favors the evolution of greater virulence in parasites. It is highly likely that all or nearly all of the lethal epidemic diseases, in the form we know, were created by agriculture. There are 10 or so very major ones besides those I named, though some are much more important than others in terms of total body count.

Doc Merlin writes:

'Well said. Tyler's case is very weak. Poor governmental policies don't ruin us, because "there is a deal of ruin" not just in a nation but in mankind altogether'

Do you consider almost 2/10 people u-6 unemployed, not ruin?
A total debt (including GSE and Agency debt) well over 110% of GDP?

Also, we have far more land in government hands than used agriculturally. We can (and should) open that land up to agriculture.

rpl writes:
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.
Bryan, doesn't this argument suffer from a bit of survivor bias? Plenty of civilizations have collapsed (for example, the Mississippian culture, the Maya, and the Anasazi, all of which show signs of ecological catastrophe), but they're not part of our history precisely because they collapsed and we didn't.
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