Bryan Caplan marvels over the organic food industry:
"Right-leaning people typically believe that (a) markets work, and (b)
organic food is a scam. I definitely fit the profile. As a result, my
every trip to the grocery store inspires cognitive dissonance. Organic
food isn't merely on the shelves; it's growing by leaps and bounds. The
organic industry itself
claims that sales grew from $1B in 1990 to $27B in 2010, with 7.7%
sales growth in 2010. What on earth is going on? How can my cognitive
dissonance be resolved?
The ideologically easiest escape route is
to drop (b). Maybe the health benefits of organic food really do
justify a 30-50% price premium. But nothing high on Google Scholar inspires confidence in this position. Major literature reviews in 2009, 2003, and 2002
report that (a) there's little solid evidence about the health benefits
of organics, and (b) existing evidence reveals little health benefit of
This is hardly surprising given the emotional,
credulous cognitive style of organic consumers. Can you imagine the
typical "all-natural" fan changing his mind in response to peer-reviewed
nutritional research? That's just not how they roll.
second-easiest escape from cognitive dissonance is to water down the
meaning of (a). Couldn't you just say "Markets work"="Markets give
consumers what they want," then add "Lots of consumers want organic
food"? Sure, but this escape route overlooks a key distinction.
Perhaps there are some consumers who simply want organic food, come hell
or high water.* But many consumers of organic food want not organic
food per se, but healthier food. As far as scientists can tell, the latter consumers aren't getting the extra health they're paying for.
At this point, you could water down the meaning of (a) even further: "Markets work="Markets give consumers what they want given their beliefs."
This story seems OK as far as it goes. But doesn't it damn markets
with faint praise? In a world of fools, markets produce a great deal of
folly. Sounds a lot like my critique of democracy, no?
Nevertheless, one big difference between markets and democracy remains. In democracy, if the median voter is a fool, everyone has
to live under foolish policies. The great redeeming feature of markets
is that anyone who figures out that, say, organic food is a waste of
money can immediately stop wasting his money. This is far from a
perfect system. But democracy, unlike markets, adds injury to insult.
In the market, the rationalist suffers fools. In democracy, the
rationalist doesn't just suffer fools. He obeys them. Or else."
Let me just say I think almost all of what Bryan says here is part of the answer - nothing is wrong with any of this. But my first reaction is to go to Veblen. There is on scientific study saying fur coats keep you warmer than faux fur coats either. So? This is largely a status thing.
I also think it's an altruism thing. It's not necessarily themselves that people want to keep healthy - it's the environment. Whether organic foods do the trick there or not is not something I'm qualified to answer, but I don't get the impression that organic food consumers are just engaging in healthy eating.
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