Fraser Forum

Let’s leave fruits and vegetables to individual choice

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Thursdays are market days at McGill University, where I teach. Every Thursday a dozen or so local producers of various edible products offer their wares for sale at stalls set up on the mall outside the Student Union Building—affectionately but unofficially known to students as the Shatner Building, after Star Trek’s William Shatner. What distinguishes the produce, apart from the small scale of the enterprises producing it, is that it’s local, fresh and usually organic.

It also tends to be more expensive than you can get in local super markets.

An economist obviously isn’t going to oppose free commerce. If people want to make mutually advantageous deals in which one side buys more expensive produce than they could get elsewhere because of some extra benefit in it, either perceived or real, and if other people want to try to make a living selling such produce, more power to them. As for me, I generally prefer to buy my fruits and vegetables in bigger stores that have reached economies of scale, usually sell their goods at a lower price and often—in a modern logistical miracle, if you think about how things used to be done—buy them from far-flung corners of the world.

Unfortunately, university communities aren’t especially known these days for their ideological tolerance. They also sometimes exhibit—alas—overweening moral superiority. As a result, where a problem arises is in the view of some fans of small-scale local markets that how they buy their fruits and vegetables is how everybody should buy their fruits and vegetables.

Thus local, small and/or organic producers should get special help from “the government”—i.e., their fellow citizens, even those who don’t actually prefer this new mode of production (which is actually a very old mode of production, dating as it does from peasant days). This help can take the form of subsidies, which means not only do I buy my own fruit and veg but I also partly pay for yours, too. Or it can take the form of prohibitions on producers that are too large, too chemically inclined or—the most common case—too foreign, so that I have no choice but to buy my food your way.

Sophisticated proponents of tilting policy toward small, local and organic will cite alleged market failures as a reason for government intervention in choosing our apples and oranges for us (though in fact locally-produced oranges are rare in these parts). Either too much carbon is consumed moving goods from the other side of the world. Or too many pesticides are bad for the environment. Or large-scale operations are dehumanizing to workers.

When these arguments aren’t simply false—in fact, moving goods around the world by sea generally requires less fuel than moving them by land—they are misdirected.

Yes, carbon emissions may be a problem. But the way to address them is not with detailed regulation of thousands of different markets, pointing consumers and producers away from carbon-intensive measures toward cleaner ways of doing business. The way to address them is with policies that face the problem directly. If the price of gasoline fully reflects the environmental cost of the carbon that burning it emits, then Bad-Food prices will rise and Good Food will become more popular and that will all take place with no need for intervention in the market for fruits and vegetables.

Governments have policies for almost everything these days. Let’s not ask them to choose our fruits and vegetables for us, too.


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