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Challenges of Food Security: Free Trade, Distribution and Political (In)Stability in Mid 18th Century France

Abstract

The paper focuses on the history of food security in mid 18th century France. It explores why and how in the 1750s French economic thinkers began to argue that free trade was the best way to achieve “food security” for everyone, and also thought about distribution, availability and quality of grain. These thinkers maintained that agriculture would provide subsistence for everyone and every region, if interventionist regulations did not get in the way of continuous circulation of grain to all parts of the kingdom. The dearths that occurred in the kingdom thus seemed to be artificially generated starvations caused by unequal “trade-based and exchange entitlements” (Sen in Poverty and famines: an essay on entitlement and deprivation. Oxford University Press, Oxford, Oxford Scholarship Online November 2003, 1983). For that reason these early liberal thinkers held that the government should, therefore, transfer the authority over trading practices to the individual traders and speculators, who alone could create a balanced market through competing interests.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/. The Sustainable Development Goal 2 declares to:

    • Correct and prevent trade restrictions and distortions in world agricultural markets, including through the parallel elimination of all forms of agricultural export subsidies and all export measures with equivalent effect, in accordance with the mandate of the Doha Development Round.

    • Adopt measures to ensure the proper functioning of food commodity markets and their derivatives and facilitate timely access to market information, including on food reserves, in order to help limit extreme food price volatility.

    http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/hunger/. Accessed 30 August 2017.

  2. 2.

    The World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO), f. ex., is criticizing these structures and is committed to establishing minimum wages for the workers in the global South through the guarantee of minimum prices of their products, even if, at times, above the global market price. See http://wfto.com/our-path-fair-trade. Accessed 30 August 2017.

  3. 3.

    Approximately every sixth person in the world is starving and suffering of hunger. Every 5 s a human being dies of hunger. (Lemke 2012, p 24).

  4. 4.

    http://www.welthungerhilfe.de/en/globalhungerindex2015.html. Accessed 30 August 2017.

  5. 5.

    https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/4389. Accessed 30 August 2017.

  6. 6.

    Alex de Waal brings to our attention that in 1943 the Bengal famine caused the British Raj to dissolve; similarly, in 1973–1974, during the famine in Wollo Province in Ethiopia, the authority of Emperor Haile Selassie was discredited. In 1985, the Sudanese government under President Jaafar Nimeirs was removed after he failed to provide subsistence. Furthermore, the Bangladesh independence movement was motivated by the people’s frustration with Pakistan’s Ayub Khan government that did not resolve the famine that was occasioned by Cyclone Bhola which laid waste to East Bengal in 1970. (De Waal 2015, p 27; also Lemke 2012, pp 16–17; Holt-Giménez/Patel 2009).

  7. 7.

    The annually calculated Global Hunger Indexes show that in the 16 years between 2000 and 2016, hunger has declined by 29 percent in developing countries. These numbers, however, do not necessarily indicate that this improvement has been an equal process, or that improvements have also reached the poorest and hungriest. Great differences in the level of hunger still exist between countries, regions and social groups (World Hunger Index 2016, p 5).

  8. 8.

    In his seminal work Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation Amartya Sen explored the relationship between food (in)security and distributive problems and pointed out that “starvation statements are about the relationship of persons to the commodity of food, rather than about the food supply per se. Starvation statements translate readily into statement about ownership of food, and ownership relations are one kind of entitlement relation.” Sen furthermore makes clear that “Starvation is the characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat. It is not the characteristic of there being not enough food to eat.” Accordingly, a person’s power to circumvent shortage of food supply depends on both his ownership of means of production as well as his/her entitlement to exchange (Sen 1983, pp 1, 4).

  9. 9.

    Herbert’s Essai was republished in six editions until 1757 (Kaplan 1976, p 101).

  10. 10.

    “Sommes-nous plus avares, plus usuriers qu’eux? L’intérêt regne également chez toutes les Nations: mais nous avions un préjugé plus que les autres;” (Herbert 1755, p 44).

  11. 11.

    “Chaque Province n’est point un Etat séparé; elles sont toutes les membres du même corps, les enfans d’une même famille. Elles ne peuvent subsister, sans se prêter journellement un secours mutuel.” (Herbert 1755, p 102).

  12. 12.

    “Sçavoir faire le commerce ou sçavoir le conduire, sont deux choses très-distinctes: pour le bien conduire il faut sçavoir comment il se fait; pour le faire avec profit, il est inutile de sçavoir comment il doit se conduire. La science du négociant est celle des details dont il s’occupe: […] Il faut donc les connoître, & ce n’est que par le négociant que l’on peut s’en instruire: on ne sçauroit trop conserver avec eux pour apprendre; pour délibérer, leurs conseils doivent être admis avec precaution” (de Forbonnais 1754, p 87).

  13. 13.

    “Le profit seul que présente l’exportation est un appas suffisant pour les spéculations du commerce” (ibidem, p 123).

  14. 14.

    “Si les sujets eussent formé la même spéculation, non seulement l’inconvénient public d’une balance ruineuse pendant la disette lui eût été épargnée; mais les inconvéniens particuliers qui sont une suite, soit du trop bas prix des grains, soit de leur prix excessif, & souvent pour plusieurs années, n’eussent point existé” (ibidem, p 152).

  15. 15.

    “Quel profit présentera une spéculation sur des denrées qu’il est défendu de garder jusqu’à ce qu’elle renchérissent?” (ibidem, p 155).

  16. 16.

    “Cette concurrence s’animera par les motifs dont nous avons déja (sic) parlé, & en raison de l’abondance des consommations intérieures qui sont un appas toujours présent pour les spéculations” (ibidem, p 375).

  17. 17.

    “Ils [les commerçants] apprennent que le blé manque dans un pays; que par conséquent il s’y vend facilement & bon prix; dès ce moment toutes leurs spéculations sont faites; c’est là qu’il faut envoyer du grain, & l’envoyer promptement, afin de profiter du temps où la vente est favorable”, (Abeille 1763, pp 7–8).

  18. 18.

    “Il doit donc prévoir que le désir de gagner multipliera les spéculations semblables aux siennes: que par conséquent l’abondance & le bas prix du grain succéderoient vraisemblablement au besoin & au bon prix. Mais il lui reste un motif pour se placer entre les risques de la perte ou du profit; c’est l’espérance de vendre ailleurs à un prix raisonnable une denrée que la concurrence feroit tomber au dessous de sa vraie valeur” (ibidem, p 8).

  19. 19.

    “Nous avons déja vu par quels motifs & comment les spéculations du commerce se dirigent vers les lieux où les récoltes ont été insuffisantes; nous avons expliqué comment la multitude de Spéculatuers, & l’impossibilité du concert entr’eux, opéroit nécessairement des versemens de grains toujours supérieurs au besoin. Tout se réduit donc à cet axiome: le commerce cherche les lieux où la merchandise se vend bien” (ibidem, pp 10–11).

  20. 20.

    This is contrasted by the “Political Economy of Virtue” that John Shovlin discovered (Shovlin 2006).

  21. 21.

    Jens Beckert has pointed out that the evolution of capitalism was accompanied by fundamental changes in the temporal orientations of actors and that capitalism needs a layout of an open future with various possible scenarios of which some can be an improvement and a better choice. Capitalist ideologies seduce with the promise of a better future (Beckert 2016, p 22).

  22. 22.

    “Dans ce moment les Négocians se gardent bien de hazarder pour leur compte l’achat de grains étrangers. Il y auroit tout à parier qu’ils perdroient sur leurs spéculation. Il arrive donc que le Royaume est mal pourvu & à très-grands frais. Mal pourvu, parce que l’etat ne fait jamais acheter à beaucoup près une aussi grande quantité de grains qu’en attireroit le concurrence des Commerçans du Royaume. À très-grands frais, parce que les Commissionnaires de l’Etat n’ont aucun intérêt à mettre de l’économie dans leurs achats, à épier les temps & les lieux où ils pourroient les faire avec plus d’avantages. Leur objet principal, & même leur objet unique lorsqu’ils ont l’ame honnête, est de remplir leur mission avec célérité. La qualité des grains, l’économie du prix n’entrent pour rien dans leurs operations.” (Abeille 1764, p 32).

  23. 23.

    “[…] les Négocians n’avoient pu faire de spéculations sur les grains, en sorte qu’ils manquèrent tout-à-coup” (ibidem, pp 34–35).

  24. 24.

    “Ainsi quand même la circulation eût été permise, les spéculations des Négocians ne les eussent pas portés à dégarnir les endroits pourvus de grains pour les envoyer ailleurs. Quand l’allarme, bien ou mal fondée, est répandue par-tout, le blé ne circule point. Le haut prix, effet prompt & necessaire de la crainte, les reticent òu ils sont. Le vrai remède contre ces terreurs, c’est la liberté de l’exportation;” (ibidem, pp 37–38).

  25. 25.

    “Ainsi c’est de tout tems que l’esprit humain s’est formé successivement divers fantomes, enfans de l’ignorance & de la crédulité: quand l’idée des Démons et des Magiciens s’est évanouïe, l’on a cru trouver des causes de disette plus vraisemblables, dans les manœuvres des Usuriers, des Avares, de Monopoleurs;” (Herbert 1755, pp 11–13).

  26. 26.

    “C’est le cri ordinaire du peuple. Il ne regarde point dans l’avenir; le present seul le touche; le sort d’autrui l’intéresse rarement. Fatal bandeau de l’amour personnel, qui ne laisse voir qu’autour de soi” (ibidem, pp 94–95).

  27. 27.

    Paul Warde suggests “that the modern notion of sustainability largely draws on ideas developed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when new understandings of soil science and agricultural practice combined to develop the idea of a circulation of essential nutrients within ecologies, and hence allow the perception that disruption to circulatory processes could lead to permanent degradation” (Warde 2011, p 153).

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Correspondence to Christine Zabel.

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Zabel, C. Challenges of Food Security: Free Trade, Distribution and Political (In)Stability in Mid 18th Century France. Eur J Secur Res 3, 35–50 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s41125-017-0023-7

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Keywords

  • Food security
  • 18th century France
  • Free market
  • Speculation
  • Distribution
  • Price politics