Sunday, December 14, 2008

The New Yorker pulls a Naomi Klein

Late last month James Surowiecki of the New Yorker had a downright bizarre article in which he blames recent food crises on the inherent instability of markets. Except, not quite, because he acknowledges that liberalization "did not cause the rising prices of the past couple of years" – but you could be forgiven for not getting that by the tone of the piece, whose argument seems to be, "Markets have become more free, and yet we still have food crises. Liberalization did not cause these crises, but if it did, wouldn't that suck?" After all, what's the point of spending half the article talking about food insecurity and the other half talking about market liberalization if you don't think the latter caused the former?

Incredibly, Surowiecki manages to get through a whole article on liberalization and the latest food riots without once mentioning the decidedly illiberal roots of the crisis: biofuel subsidies. In fact, he goes so far as to implicitly deny what seems to be the general consensus on biofuels being the cause of the recent spike in food prices, saying that it happened "for reasons that now seem not entirely obvious."

He commits another intellectual massacre when he says that an effect of agricultural liberalization has been market concentration, in that "three countries provide ninety per cent of corn exports." Here's some news for Surowiecki: the US exports the vast majority of this vast majority of corn, and this is due largely to its subsidies to corn growers.

Two of his main gripes – volitile commodity prices and concentrated production – are clearly caused or at least exacerbated by illiberal government intervention in food markets, and yet, when he gives his opinion of what world agriculture needs, "doing away with import tariffs" is the only market-oriented step he can come up with. So what we're left with is a short synopsis about how farming has become more liberalized, a short description of the latest food price spike which Surowiecki admits has nothing to do with liberalization, and the inexplicable and unbacked assertion that the answer is less liberalization and more agricultural autarky. It looks like Surowiecki's pulled a Naomi Klein – he's picked an interesting and profound subject, marshaled some compelling evidence, and come to a spectacularly wrong conclusion.

1 comment:

Jordan Amdahl said...

Over and over again, attacks against free markets rely on the false assumption that free markets are the status quo. Agricultural subsidies, health care, financial markets, you name it!

Thank you for pointing out another case of bad government intervention being used to justify bad government intervention.