Lunch, the Coalitional Nature of Ideology, etc.

Yesterday, urged on by my roommate, I went to a “community” organic lunch at the Harvard Divinity School. All of the food and ingredients were ueber-organic, grown by local farmers, prepared on site, etc.. Obviously, some of the people there were a little bit silly, but, ideological ecumenicist that I am, I suppressed all ungood thoughts and listened closely.

And, I’m glad I did. And older woman, a gardener, was refreshingly lucid:  She argued (following, I presume, Michael Pollan, who made the same point in The Omnivore’s Dilemma) that we humans adapted over our long evolutionary history to ingest and digest foods which were not protected by pesticides. There’s a strong likelihood that there are chemicals, micronutrients, etc., that we have not yet discovered or cannot synthetically reproduce, which plants produce in response to the natural threat of pests and disease, and which we are evolutionarily adapted to make use of.  That’s a strong case for organic.

Her case for local foods was that, logically, we should expect local food grown on long-standing farms which recycle their own seeds to be more nutritional than alternatives. These long-local foods have had the advantage of evolving to flourish in the local climate and its idiosyncratic weather conditions and patterns. She went so far as to say that local foods “know when there is a nor’easter coming.” This comes off as new-agey, but insofar as she means that genetic material is a kind of information, hence a kind of knowledge, and plants have, through thousands of generations of piecemeal variations and selections, encoded a sensitivity to weather conditions that correlate with coming nor’easters, then she is correct.

The very simplest way to put the case that she and Michael Pollan make for organic, local food is that evolution is smarter than modern science, and, accordingly, we should expect the former to make better produce than the latter. We have a limited ability to healthfully depart from the diet that our ancestors ingested over our evolutionary history, because we co-evolved with that food — we are designed for it. (Notably, it’s very hard to get rigorous empirical evidence about the health benefits or local/organic — way too many confounding variables — but I think the logic checks out.)

The interesting thing about this is that she was making an argument about food that (1) libertarians and (2) conservatives, respectively, make about markets and culture. That is, (1) market libertarians claim that the piecemeal, evolutionary adjustments of the marketplace produce an economic order that is more conducive to human flourishing than anything any technocratic board of Economic Decisionmakers could impose — i.e., markets are smarter than social science. And (2) cultural conservatives claim that the organic process by which communities develop and sustain systems of mores is more intelligent, and, hence, more conducive to human flourishing, than the mores we can come up with just by thinking about it — i.e., culture is smarter than moral philosophy. (Indeed, I remember my confusion as a college freshman, when, I first heard the word ‘organic’ used in the context of political theory, and wondered what Edmund Burke had to do with Michael Pollan.)

My point is not to endorse. There are obvious problems: (1) there exist well-known market failures; (2) many traditional cultural mores in many places, such as, say, the stigmatization of homosexuals, are not the products of communities discovering through piecemeal experimentation which mores most enhance their flourishing, but of emotional hatreds, ignorance, non-empirical theology, political power plays (as in the Catholic church forbidding the priesthood to marry, originally in order to prevent the division of its properties).

The basic point is that the logic for all three ideologies is consistent. So here’s an important, fundamental question for you, gentle reader: Which is smarter in general — evolution or contemporary science? Organic processes or social science?

If your answer is ‘the former,’ this should make you a little more inclined toward organic foodie-ness, market libertarianism, and cultural conservatism. If the answer is the latter, you should be a political leftist who loves agribiz. OBVIOUSLY this is a massive oversimplification. But an extraterrestrial who knew nothing about the world’s cultural politics, upon considering the question from the perspective of “evolutionary processes vs. modern knowledge processes,” would expect to see that alignment on the controversies in food, economics, and culture.

So why don’t we see it? The obvious fact — the obvious fact which makes your humble correspondent and wannabe policy intellectual very sad/disillusioned about mankind — is that no person’s bundle of perspectives on Contentious Issues, his ideology,  is purely logical, i.e., the consistent and dispassionate extension of a single set of first principles and basic concepts. Rather it is much more the case that our bundles of perspectives are the often-contradictory products of the groups of people we identify and associate with.

Conservatives, who, by the logic by which they justify their cultural positions, really ought to be organic foodies, are, to put it mildly, generally not, because, by and large, they regard organic foodies as the sort of silly, square-glasses types one finds in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and other politically liberal latte towns. Conservatives who reject organic food aren’t so much thinking about the logic of organic food itself as about the sorts of people they identify with it. (Nota bene: Here I am separating the personal-choice question of “Should I eat organic food?” from the political question of “should we subsidize organic farming and remake as much farming as possible in its image?”, in which case I think conservatives who, e.g, don’t want millions of people in poor countries to starve, are on firmer ground.) The reader can surely think of ways in which this same sort of process works on other groups as well.

This is all just a roundabout way of saying that our politics today and everything else that has a political valence — and this makes me very sad — is lamentably little about “what I think and why I think it” and lamentably a lot about “who I am and whom I affiliate with.”

Executive Summary — 😦


3 thoughts on “Lunch, the Coalitional Nature of Ideology, etc.

  1. I’ve heard people wonder about the not unsubstantial intersection of paleo diet eaters and libertarians. There’s something about the “tangled bank” that attracts both, and I think you’ve nailed it.

  2. A thought…but first, an example:

    The anti-empirical medicine equivalents of the organic food movement (they exist!), are (mostly) crazy. Science is smarter than evolution when it comes to curing certain diseases. It wasn’t, of course, smarter until sometime in the late 18th or early 19th century, and it’s done some impressively dumb things since then (antibiotic resistant diseases come to mind), but triumphs like Dr. John Snow’s victory over cholera, or the global vaccination program’s eradication of smallpox are hard to belittle.

    The organic food activist doesn’t need to claim that “nature is always smarter than reason” (the libertarian and the Burkean don’t have to either). He merely needs to make an age-old claim:

    If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. We were dying of cholera before Snow more or less invented the discipline of epidemiology. It’s hard to see what problems Doritos fixed. Good empirical medicine understands that the human body is a complex system with which you shouldn’t mess unnecessarily. Adderall and other anti-ADHD meds can make better students out of people not on the ADHD spectrum. Why are they not legal over the counter study supplements? Because they’re addictive drugs with nasty side effects that are only worth taking (and arguably not even then) if you simply can’t learn without them.

    Corollary and caveat: I think organic foods activists should still support the use of pesticide protected and/or GMO crops to alleviate world hunger. Dying now of hunger is worse than dying 20 years down the road of malnutrition. I am, however, suspicious of overuse of pesticides for the same reason I’m suspicious of the overuse of antibiotics. This extends beyond crops: the initial success of insecticide treated bed-net use for malaria prevention has been mitigated somewhat because mosquitos have developed resistance to the insecticide.

    Some diseases need to be cured, even if the cure has side effect. With others, the best current cures are worse than the disease. Sometimes, a too-easy cure can be self-defeating.

  3. Pingback: The Environmental Economics of Locavorism | This is your brain on economics

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