Around 1850, the great French economist Frédéric Bastiat was amazed to see that the million residents of Paris were not dying of hunger, even though they produced almost no food. Indeed, farmers from the country's 80 departments supplied the metropolis without even needing to confer among themselves, he noted.
Bastiat wondered, with some concern, what would happen "if some cabinet minister decided to substitute for that power contrivances of his own invention, however superior we might suppose them to be; if he proposed to subject this prodigious mechanism to his supreme direction, to take control of all of it into his own hands, to determine by whom, where, how and under what conditions everything should be produced, transported, exchanged and consumed?"
Well, 170 years later, Canadians might soon find out, since the federal government this week launched a series of consultations aiming to do just that — namely, "address issues related to the production, processing, distribution and consumption of food" in order to develop a food policy for Canada.
Industry stakeholders are invited to Ottawa for a summit on this food policy, to take place on June 22 and 23, 2017. All Canadians are also invited to participate in the process by filling out an online survey.
Our uneven progress
We often have the impression that we have made progress on every front over the past two centuries. Economically, everything has clearly improved: technology, productivity, prosperity and living standards have all advanced far beyond what they were in Bastiat's day. But have we really made much progress in terms of understanding these economic phenomena?
Bastiat had certainly understood the root causes of what he was observing. It was, according to him, the free market that made possible this miracle of feeding Paris — in other words, a system based on voluntary cooperation, exchange, the free determination of prices, and respect for property and contracts.
No planning or encouragement from government was required to ensure that farmers from every region of France would see that it was in their interest to sell food to Parisians in exchange for the manufactured goods and services they produced. Bastiat was well aware, on the contrary, that "the arbitrary intervention of the government would infinitely multiply [their] suffering."
And yet, we seem to believe today that if the government does not intervene more, the residents of Montreal, Toronto or Saskatoon will not be able to feed themselves properly.
Indeed, among the numerous possible solutions proposed by the consultation documents are "supporting new farmers to help them establish successful farms" and "helping the agricultural and food sectors innovate and adapt to changing production conditions and market demands."
Haven't farmers already been doing this for centuries, more and more effectively all the time, without any help from bureaucrats?
Moreover, Ottawa's initiative is far more ambitious than the one imagined by Bastiat, who supposed that one single minister would bring together in his hands all aspects of the nation's food. Our government informs us that no less than 16 departments and agencies will be participating in the development of this new policy:
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada
Canadian Food Inspection Agency
Canadian Institutes of Health Research
Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency
Employment and Social Development Canada
Environment and Climate Change Canada
Fisheries and Oceans Canada
Global Affairs Canada
Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada
Innovation, Science and Economic Development
Public Health Agency of Canada
Privy Council Office
History and economics both teach us beyond any doubt that we do not need government in order to be able to feed ourselves. We can eat just fine without a "national food policy."
We may well wonder if it isn't the government that needs to intervene in the economy in order to feed its legislative process and fatten up its own bureaucratic machine.
Michel Kelly-Gagnon is President and CEO of the Montreal Economic Institute. The views reflected in this op-ed are his own.