Friday, 27 November 2009

Wine riots and the economy

Margaret Thatcher isn't popular among those of the liberal/left persuasion. In fact, she's pretty unpopular in popular culture generally. Her policies towards the miners in particular have been attacked as heartless and engendering the destruction of a way of life. As a child of the 80s I am ambivalent. I understand that the law of a free economy should be one that does not support unprofitable businesses. Supply should equal demand. Etcetera.

So why do I feel a twinge of sympathy for the Languedoc winegrowers on protest in the south of France? I have little time for their vandalism, but only because it's so pathetic. Others get their nickers in a twist about this. They smashed windows in a supermarket and a bank. Well, anyone who loves food has little sympathy for supermarkets and banks...well, banking isn't the world's favourite profession right now.

A lot of people feel they are wrong to protest about a guaranteed income, much as the miners might have been wrong to strike back in the 80s. On Twitter Jancis Robinson said of the protesters: 'They really do think we all owe them a living'. A comment I admit to also sympathising with. After all, why should EU farmers be subsidised for producing food and drink we don't need? It's the law of liberal or free economies that we should not have to prop them up. We shouldn't be interfering with it by supporting this over-production.

Well, this prompts a few questions. Is not asking people to buy locally-sourced food, in season, not interfering? If we took away all subsidies for EU produce, wouldn't we end up destroying hundreds of thousands of livelihoods across the member states? Do you, for one second, believe the USA (the bastion of liberal and free trade) does not do what it can to protect its own farmers against overseas competition?

And surely, a removal of subsidies should mean increased competition, and thus a better product? Or does increased competition mean a cheaper product, not necessarily a better one? I'd argue for the latter.

It's very easy to dismiss, offhand, protesters and picket lines. Especially when it consists of ten farmers standing 'round a brazier, enjoying a day off. But carrying our love of a free trade market to its logical conclusion, you are forced to pushing a lot of people into misery.

In Europe, it seems, much of my taxes go to being squandered by MEPs in Brussels (I'd love, for example, to see their accounts published in much the same way as MPs' expenses were revealed in the UK). I don't mind some of that keeping a few more grape-growers in business.

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