May 6, 2020 Reading Time: 4 minutes

So far, two of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, death and pestilence, are upon us, but at least one of the others, famine, is also on the stalk.

Famines occur when available food sources provide insufficient calories and nutrients to sustain the lives of a significant number of human beings. They are often associated with the fourth horseman (war) as well as droughts and other natural disasters, but economists understand that most occur when market mechanisms cannot function.

After all, when crops fail in one place, they are bumper someplace else. All that is needed is free trade and food will flow from where it is cheapest to where it is most dear. Customs may have to change but when people are hungry enough they can, and will, eat just about anything. Even nasty looking and smelling critters like badgers (Meles meles) and skunks (Mephitis mephitis) are not only edible but relished as delicacies by some (Huw I. Griffiths and David H. Thomas, The Conservation and Management of the European Badger [Strasbourg: Council of Europe, 1997], 15; E. Laurence Palmer, “Farm Forest Facts,” Cornell Rural School Leaflet 33, 2 [1939], 17). Switching from maize to rice, or vice versa, is easy by comparison. 

The current threat to food security, though, is global; hence fears that hundreds of millions will die of malnutrition worldwide even if trade remains open. 

But the biggest threat to Americans’ food security is not so much the USDA’s report of frighteningly low stockpiles of grains

Or the numerous reports of egg and milk dumping and looming meat shortages.

Or even pictures of dry agricultural fields in the Corn Belt still untouched in May.

What Americans really have to fear are “anti-gouging” laws applied to food. If food prices are not allowed to rise when supply and demand conditions warrant, shortages will occur and, potentially, famine. It is difficult to believe that anyone has to make such a point in 2020, but that is where we are.

In fact, I feel a lot like Union cavalry officer John Buford, as played by actor Sam Elliot in the 1993 movie Gettysburg, explaining why he put up such a “good scrap” on 1 July 1863, the first day of that historic battle:

“I’ve led a soldier’s life, and I’ve never seen anything as brutally clear as this. It’s as if I can actually see the blue troops in one long, bloody moment, goin’ up the long slope to the stony top. As if it were already done… already a memory. An odd… set… stony quality to it. As if tomorrow has already happened and there’s nothin’ you can do about it. The way you sometimes feel before an ill-considered attack, knowin’ it’ll fail, but you cannot stop it.”

So here goes: I’ve led a scholar’s life, and I’ve never seen anything as brutally clear as this. It’s as if I can actually see Americans in one long line going into the empty grocery store. As if it were already done …. Already a memory. An odd … set … starving quality to it. As if tomorrow has already happened and there’s nothin’ you can do about it. The way you felt before the ill-considered lockdown, knowin’ it’ll fail, but you cannot stop it.

The good news is that due to Buford’s leadership and the bravery of his men, Union reinforcements were able to secure the high ground and a few days later to send Robert E. Lee back to Virginia, harassed by Buford himself. Ironically, Buford died of a respiratory disease, probably typhoid fever, in December 1863. Lord knows what language we would speak now if Buford, aged 37, had “sheltered-in-place,” but my reichsmarks are on Russian.

Maybe if Americans start “fighting” for maintenance of market prices for food today, they can keep the pundits and politicians off the allegedly moral high ground of anti-gouging laws once food prices start to rise in earnest, which they are bound to do over the next year, especially if the crop acreage that farmers expected to plant in the early March survey does not actually get in the ground. (Note that rising food prices is a separate issue from general inflation, but a general rise in the price level, if it occurs, will only make matters worse.)

I would ask if anyone has a cavalry division to spare but modern equivalents of the rifles Buford’s men used are banned as “assault weapons” in many states today, so I already know the answer. In sum, Americans’ food security is now in the hands of the same Bureaucratic-Americans who brought us insufficient PPE and failed COVID-19 testing

Bon appetit!

Robert E. Wright

Robert E. Wright

Robert E. Wright is the (co)author or (co)editor of over two dozen major books, book series, and edited collections, including AIER’s The Best of Thomas Paine (2021) and Financial Exclusion (2019). He has also (co)authored numerous articles for important journals, including the American Economic ReviewBusiness History ReviewIndependent ReviewJournal of Private EnterpriseReview of Finance, and Southern Economic Review. Robert has taught business, economics, and policy courses at Augustana University, NYU’s Stern School of Business, Temple University, the University of Virginia, and elsewhere since taking his Ph.D. in History from SUNY Buffalo in 1997. Robert E. Wright was formerly a Senior Research Faculty at the American Institute for Economic Research.

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