Friday, May 16, 2008

Food Shortages and the World's Poor

It's the institutions, stupid

Bob Zoellick of the World Bank has said that 30 countries face civil unrest, and 100 million people face malnutrition due to the recent increase in food costs. As Workers has stated before, following the old African proverb, "when the Elephants fight (or dance) its the ants who get squashed."

No different with the current crisis. The institutions of aid (including the World Bank) have set-up some international nanny-state to tinker around the edges and create a saftey-net for nation-state created disasters. This tinkering around the edges just prolongs the inevitable days of reckoning when nation-state policies need to change for the good of all.

What we have is 1) rich world subsidies for alternative fuels which crowd-out the growing and distrbution of food stuffs, but this is nothing compared with 2) both rich and poor world state policies which prevent free trade in agriculture goods. If goods were free to go where needed, as signalled through the market price mechanism, there would not be any starvation. This is obvious when we have seen that over the last 20 years of the information economy and conseqent growth in world trade there are now more obese people in the world than malnurished.

Poor countries have no incentive to lease out the building of roads and other transportation systems to get their indigenous agriculture products to market because they know that when push comes to shove the rich world and other development institutions will step up and provide aid (of course much of this in-kind foodstuff aid is taken off the top by the very self some national governments who don't have the incentives to open markets, because, well the rich nations don't either, why should they?) There is no incentive to develop local agriculture markets. Development institutions have made untrue the axiom, "all politics are local."

Reform of the world's food bodies to make them more efficient won't help, it's just making a counter-productive system run better. Reform of rich nation agriculture policies won't help either, again it's just tinkering without addressing the real issues. Central planning of economic goods just doesn't work because the world's people are just too decentralized and local for any world institution to solve anything. If people were able to grow and trade their own products, the profit incentive would make sure things go where they should. Market-distorting subsidies and central planning are anachronistic utopianism.

Granted it is hard for those who have made their careers under the international institutions created under a different time (the cold war) to give up their power and their inculturated and institutionalized mindsets of annoited world-saving, and for the poor countries to give up their reform-preventing aid monies, but hopefully Hegel is right and we are on the historical march to human dignity and freedom despite the occassional set-back. But then again maybe not. Hegel too was from a different time and place. Political bodies have grown much much larger than in Hegel's time, and the absolute size of things is a fetter on change. World bodies can provide information, sure, but a coordinated response is a fool's game creating nothing but dashed hopes, dependency and the putting off of much needed institutional change. Which I hope this blog has made clear, means the removal of central planning on a world-scale.