By:Thomas Fleming | December 17, 2012
Let us develop this point a bit. Classical liberals like to complain about federal subsidies to agriculture. They are quite right to denounce programs whose effect is to reward agribusiness while harming smaller farming operations, as if it were the government's business to pick the winners in advance. But they are equally opposed to European countries like France that protect farming as an essential part of the nation's culture. They can only defend their position by denying even the possibility of objective value.
Let us suppose we live in the country of Alsatia, whose great national product is sauerkraut made according to traditional artisanal methods of salt-curing. This sauerkraut is the basis of their great cuisine that includes pigs trotters, sausages, smoked hams, and delicacies made from every other part of the pig. The consumption of vast amounts of pig meat is facilitated and enhanced by copious drafts of Alsatian beer or white wine. No Alsatian feast or Christmas dinner would be possible without the local sauercraut, whose worldwide sales have kept Alsatian farmers in business and tended to preserve a way of life that Alsatians regard as wholesome and typical, even if they themselves work in an office.
Even Alsatia is part of the global economy in which it is cheaper to import vegetables from North Africa and pork from Eastern Europe. Traditionally, however, it has been Alsatian policy give special tax breaks to farmers, who have been able to enjoy a comfortable living while preserving the Alsatian way of life.
All was well until Alsatia entered the European Union and lost control of many national policies. Recently the dastardly Germans or Poles have been flooding the Alsatian market with industrial sauerkraut, some of it processed and packaged in China, at half the price. Alsatians as a race are thrifty, not to say cheap and many of them have turned, regretfully, to the less appetizing foreign product. The farmers—and a legion of kraut aficionados—have begged the government for relief. At the extreme, they ask for a ban on imported sauerkraut, while the moderates want only a tariff that would keep the price of sauerkraut at its current price of 2 shekels a quart. This will cost the average household perhaps 125 shekels a year, which at the current exchange rate is something like $10 per month. A majority of Alsatians favor the bill, though foreign residents and industrial workers are opposed. It is put to a referendum. How should we vote?
Many Catholic socialists defend the farmers. Classical Liberals, by contrast, denounce the measure as an immoral distortion of the market: Who has the right to dictate to me the price of sauerkraut, asks their guru Ludwig von Steinbrunnen? Foreign kraut is just as nutritious, especially when part of a delicious meal from McDonald's. If Alsatians would give up beer for coke, they would be more productive, earn more money, and be able to buy more electronic gadgets with built in obsolescence to stimulate markets to higher levels of profitability.
Only a snob or a chauvinist, he thunders, would care about the Alsatian kraut makers. Let them all move to California, where the people are notoriously suckers for organic foods and handicraft cheeses. Everyone should be allowed to make his own choice, and those who prefer gourmet kraut can spend their own money. What could seem a clear-cut choice between Liberalism, which favors unfettered markets, and socialism, which protects classes of people harmed by free trade is complicated by the fact that some Marxists (including Catholic Marxists) are just as concerned about Polish pork producers and Chinese factory workers. They join the Liberals in insisting upon global policies.
The argument, then, might seem to be between those who favor individuals and their freedom to enter into any kind of relations they wish without constraint from any level of government and those who wish to use government to protect or promote traditions and practices they happen to favor. Unfortunately, life is not so simple. Liberalism is predicated on an assumption that may or may not be true, that most people, in buying and selling and producing, make rational and free choices in their own interest and according to their own individual tastes.
I recall a Firing Line episode in which Bill Buckley argued with Mary McCarthy about America's food economy. McCarthy insisted that good bread could not be had in most parts of the USA (this was the late 1960's), while Bill held up (incredible as it seems) Pepperidge Farm bread. When McCarthy responded with shock and disdain, he told her to make her own bread. Frankly, it was a fatuous answer. Most people in European history have bought bread from a baker who has the right oven and flours to do it right, and it is silly to treat McCarthy's preference for a decent version of our fundamental food stuff as snobbery. Boiled down to its essence, Buckley's argument goes something like this: If you say tomayto and I say tomahto, why should you have to subsidize my preference for the more English pronunciation?
In my limited experience of human life, only a rather small minority of people make even semi-rational choices in deciding how to pronounce the words they use or purchase the food they eat. Still fewer are the people who actually do make this choices for themselves. American consumers buy what they are told they must have. The basic assumption of admen and PR agents is that most people are so gullible they will buy the fastfood and fast cars that are in fashion, so brainless that they will not only buy the recordings manufactured to put over Michael Jackson or Taylor Swift but even be made to adore the singers to the point that they follow their private lives with the adoration once inspired only by royalty. People, let us be honest about this, are basically chumps, and the average American is a chump and a half.
Given the right (or wrong) incentives or stimulation, many people will make harmful, even self-destructive choices. Rats will stimulate their pleasure centers, when given the chance, in preference to eating and so die of starvation. Kids exposed to drugs at an early age may destroy their minds and ultimately their lives. Easy money is an even greater temptation to many of us who might otherwise repudiate the welfare checks we depend on. Some policies have to be made by a responsible authority, national or regional or communal that transcends the right of individual idiots to choose their life-style from online catalogues.