Thursday, December 11, 2008

Michael Pollan Stars in Atlas Shrugged

In the thought-provoking novel Atlas Shrugged, the mother of a politician dreams of converting the world to soybeans. Emma Chalmers, the mother's name, was a sociologist, whose judgment was held in high regard by politicians.

She considered the soybean a more nutritious and economical plant than more traditional food crops such as wheat. Her thoughts are best illustrating through her remark, "and if all of us were compelled to adopt soybeans as our staple diet, it would solve the national food crisis and make it possible to feed more people. The greatest good for the greatest number--that's my slogan."

Consequently, vast sums of money were directed by politicians into Project Soybean. Another consequence was that the soybeans were harvested prematurely due to inexperience with such large acres of soybeans in new areas. The politicians diverted railroad cars to receive the shipment of the inedible soybeans, causing wheat farmers in other areas to have no market for their product. That nutritious, edible wheat rotted in piles on the ground, awaiting rail cars that never came. Farmers rioted, and people starved.

Of course, Atlas Shrugged is fictional, and took place a long time ago, when many people mistakenly thought a socialist-type of economy might work. But it provides lessons for today. Consider the following.

Bill Moyers recently interviewed Michael Pollan, the author of books about food. While championing the local food movement, Pollan states, "And let's require that a certain percentage of that school lunch fund in every school district has to be spent within 100 miles to revive local agriculture." (transcript available here)

What hubris, and what insanity. Michael Pollan is a smart guy and makes some great insights. He is well-intentioned. It is true that people should eat more vegetables, and it is true that government should not subsidize foods such as corn syrup. But this suggested requirement is insane. It is okay to claim that we need to provide healthier school lunches, but it should not be Michael Pollan's job to determine how the healthier lunch is provided. Efforts to increase healthy vegetables and fruits in school lunches should give schools more money to do so and requirements regarding the nutritional content of the food, but let the schools and the food market determine where and how the food is produced.

Can you imagine the insanity of requiring a small, rural North Dakota school to provide 25% of its food from local sources?

Pollan is commended for his knowledge and efforts to education the public. But he is not so smart as to tell each individual school where their food should be grown. This hubris is not laughable, it is dangerous. This is why Ayn Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged.

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