Aug

20

vintage shredded wheat adI was taught in high school history that the evil corporations formed monopolies and gouged the common man until the government broke up the trusts. However, this 100-year-old advertisement seems to suggest that government trust busting was driving food prices sky-high.

Advertisement in Nevada State Journal, August 18, 1910:

Make Your "Meat" Shredded Wheat These are troublous times for the man who eats food. The government is after the beef trust, the poultry trust and "the cold storage egg." But while congress, state legislatures and grand juries are "investigating" the high cost of living, your meat bills and grocery bills are soaring higher and higher. The food problem is an easy one if you know SHREDDED WHEAT. It contains more real body-building nutriment than meat or eggs, is more easily digested and costs much less. Always clean–always pure–always the same price. Your grocer sells it.

Stefan Jovanovich comments:

The Robber Barons were scandalous precisely because their energy and enterprise and eye for innovation brought the Tonto question into sharp focus. When Ralph writes about "our" national parks, he is highlighting that same question. The recent debate on the List about the "ownership" of one's own body also raised it in detail.

Neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution defines the right to property. Jefferson showed his precocious talents for propaganda politics by substituting "the pursuit of happiness" for "property" because he knew that the definitions of "property" were the very issues that divided the colonists. Sam Adams and his fellow radicals argued that regulations were as much property as physical stuff and that those regulations were the monopoly privileges of the Crown's favorites. The Tories argued that the Navigation Acts and other rules were necessary to preserve "the public interest".

a california sea lionAs a lifetime lover of marine mammals and the one-time joint keeper of Stevie, a Steller sea lion, I have spent 40 years living in California and watching the Tories of environmental regulation make the same snobbish arguments in favor of their superior pedigrees. Instead of examining and answering the basic questions of who owns the Pacific fishery and its mammal predators, the environmentally righteous have spent enough money on bureaucracies and international conferences and endless discussions to have bought out every whaling company and purse-seine trawler in the world. If the people who wanted to "save ANWAR" were as shrewd as they were righteous, they would be lobbying to define and auction off the specific property rights that are involved. Of course, what they would discover is that the greatest obstacle to such a process would come not from the E&P companies' unwillingness to preserve the environment but from the regulatory bureaucracies themselves. Like the tenants in a rent-controlled apartment, the people sitting in offices in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere get the most direct benefits from "preserving America" even as the place crumbles around them.

I agree with Ralph that all the arguments in favor of drilling in the name of reduced oil prices and "energy independence" are complete hooey; so were the Robber Baron arguments in favor of preferential as opposed to uniform tariffs. But, one can hardly blame the E&P companies for using the same fatuous logic of the collective "good" that their environmental opponents do; if the question of "who benefits" is to be ignored and never, ever reduced to an actual accounting, the forces of "evil" - i.e. people who want to drill for oil - will just as likely to resort to "public interest" arguments as anyone else. What is interesting is the historial contrast between the failure of preferential tariffs to gain much ground and the obvious success of the regulatory model. The explanation is simple: the advocates for favoritism in tariff rates had to answer the direct question of cost. The beauty of regulation is that it offers the benefits of ownership without all the fuss that comes from having to fess up about what it will cost. We are long past the age when a Vanderbilt could ask a journalist "when did 'the public interest' ever buy a ticket?" (That is the first part of his famous remark about "the public interest be damned" that never, ever gets quoted.)

As long as the questions of property (who exactly owns what?) can be avoided, the tragedy of the commons will continue. As long as the gullible and excessively schooled (often one and the same) can share the illusion that "we the people" will all be as happy, healthy and secure if only the government is allowed to make rules to abolish scarcity and evil, the greatest profits will come from working the system; and, when those rules fail to work, the diagnosis will always be the same as it was in the age of blood-letting: we need do more.

P.S. For those who don't know it, "the Tonto question" is the reply the Lone Ranger's faithful Indian companion allegedly gave when the two of them found themselves out of bullents and surrounded by Apache and the Lone Ranger bravely said, "We've come to the end of the trail, partner." "What you mean "we", white man? I was first told this joke by a member of the Taos tribe in 1965. What made it funny was that, as a Pueblo, Tonto would have enjoyed no better fate at the hands of the Apache than the Lone Ranger. The illusion of collective interest is always funny to people wise enough to appreciate actual human action.


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