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Dec 25, 2013

‘The Guardian’ calls for food rationing and more big government


Elitists in the halls of power in government, or in academia, think tanks, media, and elsewhere all share a love of deciding what is good and bad for us and what to do about it whether we agree or not.  Normally this involves the invoking of the good old “My will be done” clause of the authoritarian rulebook.
In Australia we have what former libertarian, John Singleton referred to as ‘the great aorta, which in its own way is the vessel that provides the blood flow to whatever the state uses in lieu of a brain, from the beating desires of those who think they know best.   They orta stop people saying, … they orta make a law to …, they orta provide more ……, they orta encourage the use of …, and so on.
In Britain, Zoe Williams of the Guardian is getting on the bandwagon of national wish lists with a call for the government to halt obesity by bringing back the sort of  rationing from the good old days of WW2
It's always presented as a happy accident, one of those cute paradoxes in which the second world war specialised, that rationing, in a bid to stop us starving, also stopped us getting fat. In fact, while obesity may not have featured in the planning, this isn't an accident: in order to be the kind of government that can effect that kind of public health improvement, you have to start by being the kind of government that cares whether or not your people are hungry. You have to be the kind of government that takes what people are putting on their tables every night as its most urgent and pressing business. 
At the end of rationing (which was incredibly unpopular, let's not forget – nobody enjoys being told how much bacon they're allowed) not only was there much less obesity, but other indicators of a nation's health – birth weight, infant mortality – also improved. At a recent Women's Institute history night, I saw for the first time a full list of what the rations actually were. 
I concluded ruefully that they were so meagre (one egg a week, 50g of butter) that I don't think I'd bother eating, I'd just live on protein powder and alcohol. But that's not the point; when one discusses rationing, it's in the context of national circumstances so straitened that everybody simply had to eat less, because there wasn't enough. But the next stage of that logical process is never discussed – which is that it was a fear, really, for the poor not having enough that led to a policy for everyone. 
Circumstances weren't so dire that rich people would have starved, or even people in the middle: the concern was a) that scarcity would falsely inflate prices, so people who could previously afford to eat would be priced out; and b) that people would hoard. The hoarding point is interesting as it gives the lie to a narrative often tacitly peddled, that human nature during the war was better than it is now, more self-sacrificing, less demanding, more generous. 
But more important is that point about prices – all markets favour the rich. In times of scarcity, though, the poor are disadvantaged by an amount so stark that you can't count it. Whatever the price is, the entire point is that it will be too much for that group, so that demand is reduced and supply at the top can remain at normal levels. It's like a bully holding a boy's satchel 5cm higher than he can jump. That much was obvious in the 1940s, and you would hope it would be again today, unless 30 years of neoliberalism has totally hollowed out our sense of reason. …
It seems strange to base an argument for rationing to prevent obesity, (which is caused by plentiful food for the entire population) on scarcity.  The author seems to be making an argument for price controls, which accompanied the rationing of that period, making the accompanying black market profitable.
The entire column though is full of authoritarian dogma.  It rails against hoarding; the prudent stocking up of non perishable foodstuffs and products likely to be in short supply.
There is also the quaint belief that ‘markets favor the rich’.  An unfettered free market creates plentiful food to the point where surpluses are exported, and even the poorest can eat well.  In a rationing and price control regime, many products disappear from the shelves but usually will reappear from under the counter if the customer can come up with a suitable offer, or knows someone who has the product for the right price.
It is not the free market which favors the rich, it is the state manipulated ‘orderly’ market that does so while discriminating against those with limited means as an unintended consequence.
Then again, this is a writer who believes that the only reason people would object to rationing in times of plenty is the fault of 'neoliberalism' 'hollowing out' our dense of reason.  Yep, Zoe, they all need your own special brand of good ol socialism.

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