Milking the free market

HOT milk used to be what you put in your coffee. But now milk itself is a hot topic, thanks to falling milk prices and dairy farmers saying they are selling milk for less than it costs to produce.

This story was reported on the BBC Radio Four’s PM programme yesterday and in the name of balance they spoke to someone from the Free Markets Rule OK think-tank. Well, extensive two-minute research via Google and the BBC website has failed to pinpoint exactly which exponent of the free-market it was who featured in the programme.

But never mind, it doesn’t really matter. What’s important is that this unremembered man spouted the usual defence of free markets. Put simply, the free market is right about everything and anyone who says otherwise can go and boil their head in a bucket of hot milk.

Well, he didn’t quite say that. But that’s how it came across. Falling milk prices were a fact of life and if farmers went out of business, so be it. They couldn’t have been very good farmers in the first place, and so on, and in time the market would readjust itself, and everything would be all right again.

I couldn’t see this unrecalled man of course because he was on the radio. But in my head he had his fingers in his ears and was going nah-nah-nah… hard cash rules… fact of life… markets know best. This is the usual moneyed mantra from such people.

Had you been listening carefully when this report was going out, you might have heard a man on the west side of York grumbling at his radio: “Yes, but what about the banks?” The banks were fully protected from the free market (and their own colossally damaging risky behaviour) thanks to huge bailouts from the taxpayer.

The problem with milk has been in the news for a while. In a clever stunt some farmers have been staging good-natured raids on supermarkets, swooping in to buy up all the milk as a form of protest, and then giving some of it away.

Mind you, a Mr or Mrs Accountant Head somewhere is probably looking at their spreadsheet for the supermarkets where these protests have taken place and going: “Well, milk is selling very well here … don’t see what the problem is at all.”

Yesterday Morrisons announced that it was to introduce more expensive milk to help farmers. The Milk For Farmers brand will see a four-pint bottle that usually costs 89p rising in price by 23p, with an extra 10p per litre being paid to farmers. This is fair enough if it works, and it does at least answer those (this man on a ledge included) who grandly say: “Oh, I’d pay more for milk to help the farmers.” Well, now you can and so can I.

Now I am no expert, but surely the problem lies in an unfettered world market for food which operates purely for the benefit of the market and is not in the public interest at all – unless you are a member of the public who wishes to buy milk at such a cheap price that the product itself risks becoming so worthless it disappears.

Now I confess to being a romantic fool in these matters. The very notion of a global market in milk strikes me as bonkers and possibly malevolent. How can milk sensibly be shipped around the world – and wouldn’t it be better just to have more and more local farms, producing local milk sold at realistic prices to local people?

Well, I can hear the free-market man on the radio heckling right back at me. But two of us can play at sticking our fingers in our ears.

Incidentally, here is an example of a free-market think tank clearly talking the finest grade of good sense. According to a report in The Independent, the answer to Britain’s housing crisis lies in building more slums. This suggestion came from the Adam Smith Institute – or, more fairly, in a blog on the libertarian institute’s website in which an Oxford student wrote: “Sweeping deregulation is the only way to provide Britain with the slums it is crying out for.”

Yes, there you have it: solve the housing crisis by erecting jerry-built slums where the poverty stricken can congregate in cheerful penury. I can see those happy people now, thankfully raising a glass of cheap milk to the wonders of the free market.

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