The anti-capitalists contend that the market fosters whatever has the broadest appeal, even when the lowest common denominator indulges our basest appetites.
Defenders of freedom and markets tend to fall back on one of two strategies: either explaining why capitalism’s apparent vice is really a virtue (would we really prefer a system in which a self-selected elite got to plan the supply independent of demand?), or championing the products impugned by capitalism’s critics.
Ludwig von Mises took the first position. In The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, he defended the popularity of detective stories not because of any inherent virtue in the genre but because murder mysteries were what the reading public wanted, whether or not the literati approved of their preferences.
In Oakland, California, not far from where I live, urban homesteading – growing food on private land for small-scale trade and consumption – has become so common the city government was forced to back off for once. In a rare triumph for sanity and freedom, anachronistic zoning ordinances from 1965 were liberalized to accommodate the city farmers. Molly Samuel explained at KQED:
“The city has already made some changes; it’s now legal to grow and sell vegetables on an empty lot with a conditional use permit. . . . Oakland North reports one of the hotly debated topics [at a city meeting] was animal husbandry: Should Oaklanders be permitted to raise, slaughter, and sell animals? Or not?”
Despite the remaining government bureaucracy, we have to cheer on the homesteaders. They are so impossible to ignore, hundreds of them flooding a city meeting, that the tyranny of zoning is being ratcheted back for once.
And although it has a leftish quality, libertarians ought to take notice of this counter-cultural movement, whose localizing agenda poses profound implications for the future of liberty. With the economic forecasts dire and the corporatist system of mega-farms firmly gripping the Obama administration and all federal politics for the foreseeable future, our rights and perhaps very lives may depend on the freedom to farm at home.
I first heard of Steven Johnson’s 2006 book The Ghost Map from a George Will piece called “Survival of the Sudsiest.” The book’s full title is The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. Will describes it as “a great scientific detective story about how a horrific cholera outbreak was traced to a particular neighborhood pump for drinking water.”
In the “The Books of Summer” (Liberty, July 2007), Bruce Ramsey also recommends it:
It tells the tale of the deadly outbreak of cholera in London in 1854, and how two men, a doctor and a preacher, proved how it was spread.… In parallel to the detective story is a revolting description of London in the early industrial age. The industrial revolution made London the earth’s largest city with the earth’s largest waste problem. Libertarians will note that market mechanisms did arise to handle this, though they were, in the author’s estimation, not so good. They will note that the first solution imposed by government made matters worse — but that the second one was better. The book also shows how the provision of sewers and a clean water supply ended cholera epidemics by the last quarter of the 19th century.
I’m finally getting around to reading The Ghost Map, and while it is compelling and enjoyable from the first page, it is also an excellent example of why it helps to have some economic literacy to be able to read popular history critically.
Both Johnson’s masterly prose and his questionable economics are evident from the first. Here’s his opening:
New York City’s Mayor-Turned-Nanny-Wannabee, Michael Bloomberg got a taste of his own medicine when he was denied a second slice of pizza at a local restaurant. Says the “report,” from The Daily Currant:
Bloomberg was having an informal working lunch with city comptroller John Liu at the time and was enraged by the embarrassing prohibition. The owners would not relent, however, and the pair were forced to decamp to another restaurant to finish their meal.
Sometimes one of these busybody control freaks gets his just deserts, even before he’s finished his meal!