Thursday, June 20, 2013

Free-market agrarianism

I am really struggling to define my personal politics right now.  In general, I'm libertarian -- I believe that the law should stick to the bare minimum of what's necessary to protect everyone's rights.  And I think I believe in free markets -- because if you are not free to purchase, sell, and trade what you want, how can you be said to be free at all?  Meanwhile I've read a lot of economists and it seems clear to me that a free market is the most likely kind to result in prosperity for everyone.

However, I'm also to some extent an agrarian.  Not that I believe that everyone should be a farmer -- that would be counter to the idea of self-determination, considering that not everyone wants to be a farmer.  But I believe it shouldn't be so hard to be a farmer if you want to.  I think you should be able to make a living on a small farm.  People will tell you it's impossible, but what they really mean is that it's impossible in our current economic climate.  So I would favor changes in the economic climate that made small farms possible.

I also tend to believe that small farms and businesses are better than large ones, because they allow more people to be owners and fewer to have to be employees.  They can be more personal and responsive to people's actual wishes, instead of (as the mega-companies do) trying to create wishes in "consumers" for products we didn't previously want.

I believe that every human being has a responsibility for other human beings.  If an economic or political system does not work for the very poor, it does not work.  It doesn't matter how rich some people are able to get or even that the majority are doing fine.  If the bottom 1% is starving to death in the streets, that is a bad system.

Last of all, I believe we have a duty to be good stewards of the environment.  We are on earth only for a short time, but the land we live on and use remains after we die.  We have to leave it in good enough shape that our children and grandchildren can live on and use it too.

For point number one, allowing more people to farm or homestead, there are a few simple, free-market changes that would help.  First off, we have to get rid of our current Farm Bill with its system of subsidies for the biggest producers.  It is extremely unjust the way we pay people to make massive amounts of commodity crops (corn, wheat, and soy), and that the biggest subsidies always go to the richest farmers.  No farm bill at all would be better than what we have, though I am still studying the intricacies of agricultural economy and I'm not yet certain that no farm bill is the answer.  A truly free market would have no farm bill ... but before I could support that, I would need to be certain that this wouldn't result in catastrophe for farmers due to wildly fluctuating crop prices. 

Historically, there have been issues with farmers growing too much and creating a massive surplus.  That drives the cost of grain down, so that the only way to survive is to plant even more and create an even bigger surplus.  The original farm bill worked by paying farmers not to plant so much.  They got a check for not working.  Since the 1970's, we've done the opposite -- encouraged farmers to plant as much as they could, and paid them a subsidy to make up for the rock-bottom grain prices.  Then, to deal with all that extra grain, we've created grocery stores full of junk food made of corn, wheat, and soy derivatives that cost almost nothing to produce and make a fortune for food processors.  The rest goes to animal feed (read: feedlot cattle => McDonalds) and biofuels which cost more petroleum to farm than they actually replace.

Could we get by with no subsidies for anyone -- would the market adjust to this?  That's what I want to know.  Certainly for every other product, the market determines a fair price based on supply and demand.  But crops are special, first because the supply varies hugely from year to year based on weather, and second because we all have to buy food.

For point number two, small vs. large, the free market can definitely help too.  Pages and pages of regulations make it hard for new businesses to start up, and make the cost of a small business proportionately bigger.  I've talked about this before; part of why we don't have more small businesses is because we don't have a free market.  It's not inevitable.

Without the Federal Reserve ripping us off, without bailouts for Wall Street -- which make it possible for them to make a fortune on risky ventures, leading to bubble after bubble and volatile prices -- we would have a much more equitable division of wealth than we do.

And yet, no matter how smoothly our economy was running, the poor we will always have with us.  Even when there is opportunity for everyone, there will always be widows, retirees who didn't save enough, disabled people, and people who didn't make the best choices.  If even one person starves to death in your system, something is terribly broken.  I don't think libertarians talk enough about this.

Of course the short answer is "private charity," but this answer isn't entirely satisfying to me.  What if people don't give to charity?  The same sorts of people who talk about private charity fixing everything are the ones who think that running a business that hires people is philanthropy.  It's not -- it's self-interest which happens to help others too.  I guess the answer here is the same as I always say -- the free market will not be virtuous for you.  Personal responsibility still exists, and sometimes you will have to do things that aren't personally beneficial.  Haven't you ever voted for a tax hike for schools or fire departments?  Most people have, and if this wasn't taken care of by taxes, they could give the same amount of money directly.

On the other hand, I don't completely agree with the "taxation is theft" rhetoric.  A small amount of tax -- my preferred tax is property tax, for reasons I'm going to have to go into later -- can provide a safety net for anyone who falls through the cracks of private charity.  I respect people's desires to have free choice over where every cent of every dollar goes, but I simply don't see the right to property as absolute the way the right to life is.

Last of all, the environment, and this is where it gets the hairiest.  Because we all know that it is often more profitable in the short term to destroy the environment than to care for it.  Strip-mining, water table depletion, pollution, and the mistreatment of soil are pretty much rampant, despite many laws intended to curb excesses.

John's answer is that if environmental depletion affects anyone besides yourself or crosses over your own property line, you should be punished.  And the lawsuit is the way to do that.  People should freely be able to sue if they are dealing with your nitrogen runoff, your feedlot stench, your coal slag, your fracking residue, or what-have-you.  If someone's well goes dry because you sucked up the whole water table to make bottled water, they should be able to sue you.  If they can present evidence of harm, they should get a hefty payout, partly to reimburse them for what they lost, but mostly to punish you, so that eventually it is too expensive for them to do business that way.

But that's not entirely satisfactory to me.  What about damage you do to your own property?  It's not going to be yours forever.  You can say, "Well, if I hurt the resale value, I'm only hurting myself."  But some people don't intend to sell.  There are businesses -- like Avtex here in my town -- that pollute the heck out of a parcel of land and then go out of business, leaving a worthless stinking eyesore behind.  Or you might die and leave your strip-mined mountainside to your son.  Is that fair to him?  When there's plenty of good land around, it's easy to say "Well, people will choose to buy unpolluted land, so owners will avoid polluting to keep up their property values."  But clearly this is no motivator; people still pollute.  And what happens when all the land has been polluted and there is no clean land left to buy?  I'm thinking particularly of soil depletion; most of the farmland in America is losing topsoil at such a phenomenal rate -- tons per acre per year -- that it's turning to rock dust which is only farmable with more and more chemical fertilizer.  Without natural gas to make the fertilizer, we could face a very sudden wakeup call that we no longer have much fertile land in this country.

It seems to me you're stealing from future generations when you mistreat the land, even if it's your own property.

Must we rely, yet again, on people's better natures?  That never seems to get us as far as I want.  But probably what is needed here is education -- that, and a halting of those subsidies that encourage polluting, unviable industries.

Whenever I talk politics, I end up at the same point again: what if people don't do the right thing?  It isn't just capitalism; it's any system.  Democracies are great, at least the Athenians thought so (though it only worked for them because they shut poor people and women out of the vote).  But in radical Islamic countries that adopt democracy, they use it to vote to persecute the non-Muslim minorities.  When a majority chooses to kill or otherwise injure the minority, democracy has failed.  And yet there is always some incentive to do it, because if you're the majority, why shouldn't you do everything it takes to get what you want?

Republics like the US should be, to some extent, immune to this because we have wise men representing us, right?  Except that every republic in history has learned in a hurry that representatives can be bought.  Take five minutes to research the Farm Bill or the so-called Monsanto Protection Act and you'll find that out in a jiffy.  And that's only because we're lucky enough to know about it.  I daresay there's much more corruption that we don't know about.

Monarchies can be good or terrible.  Alfred the Great's was good.  Louis XIV's was horrible.  It's just luck of the draw, whether you get a good egg or a bad one, and most of the eggs appear to be bad, if history is any teacher.

And anarchy?  It doesn't last.  When there is no government, we create one.  Rousseau liked to talk about the "state of nature."  Much as I love hutner-gatherers, the state of nature does not exist.  The most primitive tribe in the world has a social system that's been developing for countless generations.  Every time government disappears -- like in Sicily a century or two ago, or some areas of Afghanistan now -- mafias and organized crime rings take its place.  Because if there is no one to stop them, bad people will always try oppressing other people.

No, there is no magic bullet that is going to make people live in peace and harmony with no poverty or oppression.  We aren't in Eden anymore and there will always be problems.  We can minimize those problems by three means:

1.  Practice a life of personal virtue.  That means giving to charity (10% is a great benchmark, if it doesn't impoverish you), treating employees fairly, giving a good day's work for a good day's pay, taking care of the environment, and not overconsuming the goods of the earth.  That is your job.  No government in the world has successfully been able to make people do this 100% of the time, but you can do it 100% of the time all by yourself.

2.  Systems of checks and balances.  The Founding Fathers were so afraid of excessive government power that they split power any way they could slice it in the hopes that the different levels and branches would counter each other.  Certainly that's better than the alternative, though sadly it isn't working as well as intended.

3.  Keep leaders accountable.  That means government -- vote, write your representative, get involved on the local level, investigate corruption.  And it also means business -- refuse to buy from companies that exploit people.  That may mean a sacrifice in your standard of living.  Even so, you might not be able to do everything you'd like to.  I can't afford to stop buying mass-produced grains, meat, and vegetables, though I do avoid processed food (neatly boycotting both Nestle, one of the world's biggest offenders when it comes to exploitation, and all its competitors too) and I have a plan to work toward not buying the other stuff too.  I can't afford to give up the car, because John drives it to work, but we just have the one and avoid unnecessary driving.  I can completely boycott clothing producers, because I buy clothes at Goodwill -- which is great for the environment and obviously isn't an expensive decision.

It's clear enough to me, the more I study the issues, that while the free market may make it possible for me to live the agrarian dream, even if I could set up a system custom-designed for what I want, it still could not guarantee justice or happiness.  That part is our job.

However, I think that, since agrarianism is a movement rather than an economic or political system, it can coexist with capitalism.  That's why I think of myself as a free-market agrarian.

Do you think I'm just kidding myself to think I can be both?

1 comment:

Enbrethiliel said...


Sometimes I wish I could spice my comments up by arguing with you about something you passionately believe in, but whenever you write a "controversial" post, it's usually about something I hadn't thought deeply about yet, so I end up soaking it up to think about later.

However, I recently encountered someone (online, of course) who was quite critical of parents who decide not to vaccinate their children, and found myself repeating a lot of things I first read here as well as adding my personal twist to them. If this were an exam, I fancy that I'd get an A. ;-)

But given my lazy learning curve, I'll probably end up commenting on the ideas in this specific post a year or two from now.

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