Freeman

ARTICLE

Cabbages or Commissars?

AUGUST 01, 1956 by HART BUCK

Filed Under : Government

Mr. Buck, statistician of the Toronto-Dominion Bank, offered this fanciful contrast between political and economic methods in a Rotary Club address, July 25, 1955.

The foundation of economics lies in our freedom to choose between alternatives. Shall I have lunch at home where it’s cool or go to the Club? Shall I have coffee or tea? Shall I buy cabbages or parsnips for dinner? Every minute of every day we find a situation where we can have either A or B, but not both.

It may not matter a hoot how we choose between cabbages and parsnips; but if we accept liberty as the highest human value, indispensable to the pursuit of happiness, it is important that we should be free to choose the vegetable we want. Whether we do choose parsnips rather than cabbages will depend on two things: how much we actually prefer parsnips to cabbages, and how much easier it is to grow one instead of the other. Our choice would depend, in other words, on demand and supply. We may find, for instance, that there are many more cabbages to be had on the market than there are parsnips and, despite a mild preference for parsnips, may settle for a good head of cabbage. Or again, we might prefer parsnips so much that we would take them even if they had to be flown across the ocean while cabbages rotted on the ground in our own township.

If enough of us prefer parsnips to cabbages, this will influence the decisions of farmers. When they acquire new land they will be inclined to choose parsnip-land instead of cabbage-land; when they get new machinery they will tend away from cabbage-machines toward parsnip-machines, to the extent that they are free to do so. The end result will be that partisans of parsnips and of cabbages each will get what he wants. There will eventually be plenty of both to go around if everybody concerned is free to choose between them.

Speaking generally, the upshot of economic thought is that we can get maximum values, as embodied in cabbages and parsnips and everything else we want, if only we leave the market open.

Perhaps to some minds a more acceptable alternative might be an official Cabbage Planning Board, established by Act of the Legislature. Imagine the Board taking censuses and surveys, to discover how many cabbages folks wanted to eat, and how many acres of land and tons of fertilizer and units of machinery and man-hours of work their cultivation would call for, and how much all these would cost at current prices! One single directing brain would assume the burden of deciding how many tons of cabbage would get eaten week by week.

Even granting our Cabbage Commissar to be such a devoted public servant that a pile of mink coats would never bury his civic virtue, we may guess that he would adjust his margins for error in favor of too many rather than too few cabbages. Not even the least fortunate of his fellow men should forego such a rich repository of vitamins, calories, minerals, and values of that kind! At the same time, he could hardly avoid pegging the price of cabbages. Otherwise, some farmers might say that the wretched things cost too much to grow. Next our Commissar would have to see that surplus domestic cabbages got marketed abroad, and to stem the flow of cabbages from other places. In due course, since at the pegged price for cabbages some lukewarm cabbage-eaters might turn to parsnips instead, the poor fellow might desperately seek authority to expand into a Cabbage and Parsnip Control Board.

We might decide after all this that a more efficient method for planning the output of our vegetables—as in the case of everything else—is simply to leave the planning to the people who grow them and eat them. []


When Government Takes Over

When a government takes over a people’s economic life it becomes absolute, and when it has become absolute it destroys the arts, the minds, the liberties and the meaning of the people it governs . . . . Men who are fed by their government will soon be driven down to the status of slaves or cattle.

Maxwell Anderson, The Guaranteed Life

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August 1956

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Unfortunately, educating people about phenomena that are counterintuitive, not-so-easy to remember, and suggest our individual lack of human control (for starters) can seem like an uphill battle in the war of ideas. So we sally forth into a kind of wilderness, an economic fairyland. We are myth busters in a world where people crave myths more than reality. Why do they so readily embrace untruth? Primarily because the immediate costs of doing so are so low and the psychic benefits are so high.
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