Feeding the World


Wealth of Nations in Crisis, by Ronald C. Nairn, Houston, Tex.: Bayland Publishing, 1979, 289 pp., $12.95.

Despite lofty rhetoric and abundant promises, the Third World is still hungry. Blame is typically placed on imperialism, overpopulation, poor technology, resource scarcities, or a plundering multinational agribusiness. Ronald Nairn's Wealth of Nations in Crisis offers another perspective. For Nairn, individuals are the "alpha and omega of all that happens on this planet." Man is both the promoter of development and its chief inhibitor. On the one hand, the autonomous action of individuals creates wealth. On the other, man, abusing power through the vehicle of the State, is thwarting development.

Nairn's theme is not unique. What sets his argument apart is its scope, its force, and its consistency. The breadth of topics upon which Nairn touches is astonishing. He first attacks the "wisdom" of the "crisis-brokers," that wave of pessimistic analysts who claim overpopulation and resource exploitation signal doom for mankind if comprehensive controls are not undertaken. With equal ardor he admonishes the romanticist, pushing for some "new Arcady" in which manual labor, organic fertilizers, and nature's bounty would replace modern technology, likening them to a religious cult who would push their worldview on others through State action.

In building his own theme Nairn discusses technology, politics, ideology, bureaucracy, and culture; first as abstractions, then in relationship to agricultural production. That he should provide detailed information on agriculture is not surprising given his training as an agricultural consultant. That he is equally capable of invoking the wisdom of Buddhist, Hindu, Confucian, and Christian philosophy, drawing from classical literature, citing economic treatises, or reviewing widely ranging political theories is inspiring. This tremendous versatility transforms Nairn's work into a philosophic venture rather than strictly an assessment of global agricultural problems.

Nairn's work is uncompromising, even zealous, in tone. For the academic, used to pretended objectivity and subdued scholarly jargon, his style may seem irritatingly messianic. But that is its strength. His crusading tone is backed by extensive knowledge of agriculture, both as science and practice. He has spent over 30 years as an agricultural consultant in the Third World. His vigorous condemnation of current political schemes and prevailing theories arises from first-hand experience, not from ivory tower contemplation.

Though a major strength of Nairn's work is his candor, it also detracts from the subtlety of his arguments. This is particularly true in his prescriptions for change. For example, viewing with dismay the bureaucrat's penchant for regulation, he says simply that bureaucrats must change. They must (if they are to exist at all) restrict their role to that of teacher, and servant, not regulator. One wonders if Nairn truly believes this recommendation to be possible. If so, it is a naive expectation.

Because his overall work reveals so much depth of thought it is unlikely that his simple and direct prescriptions are the result of naivete. A second interpretation is that Nairn, although aware that his proposals for change are improbable, nonetheless sees no other real solutions to the food problem. However pessimistic he might be of their implementation, he insists on bluntly spelling out what he perceives as the only ultimate answers to increasing food production. Whatever the motivation for his blunt proposals, the reader is left wondering how, if at all, one can bring about the fundamental changes in political behavior that Nairn advocates.

In spite of this criticism, Nairn's overall argument is a powerful one, both because it is forcefully stated and because it is remarkably consistent. He is unswerving in his condemnation of the State as economic planner and paternalistic provider. He does not succumb to the common ploy of criticizing one form of government intervention only to advocate another in its place. He consistently looks to the individual peasant for the solution to the world's food problem, insisting that where individuals have the liberty to optimize their talent, they are capable of transforming the world into a cornucopia. Nor is his claim merely speculative. He backs his assertions with a wealth of examples in which peasants, unfettered by government interference and taxation, have fashioned productive farms out of even the most hostile environments.

Perhaps what is most appealing in Nairn's approach is his keen appreciation for the diversity of cultures in the Third World. He is not a cultural imperialist blindly wedded to Western technology, property arrangements, and work habits. This sensitivity to cultural diversity sets Nairn apart from free-market conservatives who join him in decrying State controls but seldom prescribe anything beyond imitation of Western-style norms and practices as the panacea to the Third World's ills. He is, for example, comfortable with communal land ownership under some circumstances. Nor does he espouse the slaughter of sacred cows in India, as do many other analysts searching for an immediate remedy to India's food problem.

Wealth of Nations in Crisis is not simply a book for agricultural economists or Third World specialists. Full of information and philosophic insight, and written without pretense, it is a book that anyone interested in the fruits of individual liberty could enjoy.

Lynn Scarlett is a graduate student in political science at the University of California at Santa Barbara.