Saturday, March 16, 2013

John Farmer Jr.’s “Obese” Concept of Prosperity

America is headed for a downfall. What will cause this downfall? Prosperity, according the dean of Rutgers School of Law-Newark, NJ.

John Farmer Jr. doesn’t explicitly attack “prosperity." “Obesity,” Farmer says in Our Destructive Appetite: ‘Bigger is Better’ May Lead to the Downfall of America, is the problem:

When first lady Michelle Obama recently identified obesity as a threat to national security, she was only slightly exaggerating; obesity is the fitting symbol and metaphor for our age of appetites.

Climate change, confiscatory consumption patterns, deficit spending, economic bubbles, drug wars, and fossil fuels are the leading “risk factors” to America that Farmer says are caused or exacerbated by “our destructive, ‘bigger is better’ appetite.”

Leaving aside Farmer’s childishly simplistic assertions that the effects of climate change (aka global warming) are universally destructive and that “greed” caused the 2008 economic meltdown, the real target of Farmer’s piece is prosperity--i.e., capitalism.

A growing global industrial economy is raising the living standards of billions of people. Fossil fuels are the driving energy source for this prosperity. Far from being a risk, fossil fuels have been a boon to the planet, changing hostile natural environments to benevolent man-made environments featuring central heating, cooling, and plumbing, water purification and delivery systems, electrification, global agriculture, infectious disease eradication, comfortable and easy transportation modes, massive productivity increases that have drastically reduced the time and physical effort of our work, and a massive, ever-expanding array of life-enhancing products and services that our money can buy. The risk of fossil fuels is in efforts to curb their use, not in their use.

Many of the problems Farmer cites are legitimate--and, not surprisingly, caused by government.

“Confiscatory consumption patterns” are driven by confiscatory taxation, which fuels the government spending that leads to deficits. “Economic bubbles” are caused by central banks’ excessive money and credit expansion, which also fuels deficit spending through inflation (artificial money creation). The drug wars are a direct consequence of drug prohibition--the perpetually failed “War on Drugs.” All of this is caused by the “unrestrained appetite” of politicians to control our lives and our economy.

And if “We are pledged to an ideology of consumption that cannot be sustained,” it is not unsustainable because it will “despoil the planet.” Consumption presupposes production, which improves the planet by altering the environment in accordance with human needs. Over-consumption--consuming more than we produce--is certainly unsustainable. But what is it that we have been taught for decades by economists, academics, and politicians? That we can spend our way to prosperity--aka stimulus programs, or Keynesian economics.

Our appetite for consumption is not the problem. There's nothing wrong with pursuing the good life, and spending our own earnings toward that end. It’s our appetite for destructive economic ideas coupled with statism and the government interference into our economic affairs that statism spawns. Not consumption, but the belief that we can consume more than we produce is what’s threatening us. The fallacy of this belief is obvious to most of us in our personal financial lives: Most of us understand that you have to make a buck before you can go to the mall and spend it. But that common sense wisdom is somehow lost on many of us when we turn our attention to politics. In a sense, this is “our” fault: “We the people,” after all, elect the politicians that are spending us into national bankruptcy.

Farmer sees big risks ahead as we face global competition and even armed conflict over “increasingly scarce resources.” Capitalism channels that competition toward peaceful trade. Political restrictions on trade is what opens the door to armed conflict by those fearful of being shut out of the global trade that can enable them to participate in rising prosperity. 

Does Farmer advocate capitalism? No, he attacks capitalism through a back door: He attacks capitalism's consequence; prosperity. His worldview is watered-down Malthusianism; a call to reduce our standard of living, if not the population. But he ignores the one natural resource that can never run out as long as human beings inhabit the planet.

What’s the resource that Farmer, like all neo-Malthusians, fails to grasp?

The ultimate natural resource is man’s mind. It is by means of reason that men find ways to turn earth’s raw materials into the material products we consume. Oil and sand were thought useless for centuries. Today, they drive our high-tech industrial economy. Who knows what new uses for what heretofore little used raw materials will arise in the future? Whatever they may be, it is men applying reason that will do it. Man’s mind--the individual mind--applied to physical labor is the source of production.

Since the mind is the attribute of the individual, the only political requirement we need is individual liberty; that is, free market capitalism and its corollary, individual rights and limited, rights-protecting government. This combination--man’s mind coupled with political-economic freedom--has brought us a long way from the days when the barest necessities of food, clothing, and shelter consumed our daily struggles--struggles that often weren’t enough. That combination is the vital ingredient that will enable us to deal with whatever short-term climate problems or raw material scarcities that may surface in the future.

Whether Farmer is attempting to give cover to statists or not, the last thing we need is for political masterminds to get in the way of scientific and technological progress. If there is a risk to America, that is it. Quite the contrary, solving the kinds of actual problems cited by Farmer requires getting the central planners out of the way. What we need is a return to free market capitalism--in undiluted form, this time--which means to reduce the government to its proper role, as the Declaration of Independence states, of protecting individual rights.

Related Reading:

Exploit the Earth or Die, by The Objective Standard

Free Market Revolution, by Yaron Brook and Don Watkins

Obama Should Approve the Keystone Pipeline for Economic and Environmental Reasons

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