CornIt’s interesting to observe the political Left at this period in time. It isn’t just the state of fluctuating and redefining of leftist positions as they relate to 21st-century challenges, it’s also the fact that more and more liberal goals seem to be coming into conflict with each other.

This is a good example. Where the Left have succeeded in meeting some of their goals on poverty, the results of that success mean impediments of their ambitions on carbon emissions, the environment and sustainability. (By the way, the rise in the global living standard and the fall in poverty is attributable to market capitalism rather than any drive of left-liberal values.) More Westerners are middle class than ever before, and more developing countries gaining prosperity than ever before. That means more people can afford to buy food, more people are driving cars and more people are consuming energy. So, dear leftist, do we really want to feed the world after all?

An editorial in the LA Times today laments another great liberal dilemma:

“Something is very wrong with this picture: The United Nations’ World Food Program has been hit so hard by skyrocketing grain prices that it may be forced to cut off some food aid to the world’s poorest countries, while the United States is planning to turn record quantities of corn into automotive fuel.”

The problem, you see, is that biofuel made from corn (corn-based ethanol) is being seen by Liberal Faction A as an alternative fuel to gasoline, emitting far less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Meantime, the extra demand is pushing the cost of corn and grain to their highest levels, meaning that fewer people will be finding themselves able to use it as food, and causing Liberal Faction B (such as the LA Times) to get very concerned about the whole situation.

The editorial goes on:

“The astonishing callousness of burning millions of bushels of grain in gas tanks even as global starvation worsens has apparently never occurred to Congress, the Bush administration or the remaining presidential candidates, all of whom are big boosters of ethanol.”

Strong words against corn-based ethanol, particularly from the LA Times!

“…Demand is rising in part because better living standards in developing countries are bringing a change in diet — Indians and Chinese are eating more meat, so more grain is needed for livestock feed. And ethanol is making a bad situation worse. The U.S. is the world’s top corn exporter, and about a quarter of last year’s crop went to ethanol.”

Well corn-based ethanol is a terrible idea, in practice. Ultimately the market will sort this mess out, but I think it’s safe to say that corn-based ethanol is not the future of fuel. There are some awful issues with the stuff, including the fact that we eat corn and probably don’t want to eat any less of it (add to this its dreadful inefficiency as an energy source). It’s a gung-ho greenness and a rush to be emissions-free that is upsetting a lot of apple carts in the economy and the market (and all that for a Chicken Little-ism about climate change).

So, what does the LA Times believe should be done?

“It needn’t come down to a choice between conserving oil or feeding the poor. …. Until the environmental and economic effects of biofuels have been thoroughly examined, the government should stop trying to squeeze more energy out of corn cobs.”

Well, blimey, I agree; the government should keep the hell out. Subsidising farmers is asking for trouble. If there’s any hope for a market solution, then it must be allowed to happen organically and autonomously without interference from the government. And were the government to live up to its end of that deal, a market solution is inevitable – it’s basic economics. How will the market deal with the energy crisis without creating a food deficit? Well it’s already begun the job. Hydrogen fuel cell. Nuclear power. Cellulosic ethanol (extremely promising, especially as compared to the corn variety). Perhaps in the near-term it’ll just mean that more corn- and grain-growing outfits will appear around the world to meet the increased demand.

The point is that the Left is wrong about this, as usual, and – ironically – only market capitalism has the ability to unite these two liberal goals and do justice to them both. Ultimately, the libertarian answer to the question “Food or fuel?” is ‘Yes.’