One of the reasons why people get so cross about the cost of petrol is the knowledge that a high proportion of the price paid at the pumps is accounted for by tax, rather than the cost of extracting, refining and distributing the stuff. The same goes for a pack of cigarettes, pint of beer or a bottle of wine, to name a few. With a lot of grocery produce, such as your humble carrot, most people may not appreciate – yet – how much of the cost of getting those vital vitamins is accounted for by government-created production costs. Well, there have been a flurry of stories on the wires about a recent EU Parliamentary vote to ban dozens of pesticides that are deemed harmful. As a result, farming groups claim, output of crops will fall and presumably, if other things remain equal, prices will go up at a time when household budgets are under strain. It does not seem to have occured to policymakers that a simple option would be to put what chemicals are used to treat crops on a packet so that consumers can figure this out for themselves and take an informed decision.
The trouble with stories like this is that the votes to ban X or Y at the EU level rarely gain a lot of coverage for more than a day or so, and then the issue tends to fizzle out, of interest only to obsessives and geeks like yours truly. A busy populace, worried more about their jobs, mortgage or children, will hardly dwell on the issue. But when Mr and Mrs Briton wonder why on earth it costs so much to buy basic groceries, the temptation will be to imagine that it is the fault of big, evil supermarket chains, for example. Rarely will the cause of the cost be seen as stemming from bureaucrats and European MPs.
Of course, it may well be that the chemicals being banned are as harmful as is claimed, although given the way these things work, I doubt it. We are told that for a healthy diet, your average person requires several servings of fruit and veg a day; such things are considered good for warding off cancer. Even if there is a health risk from chemicals, the health risk of not eating enough vegetables because of high costs is even higher. These things involve a trade-off between one set of risks and another, rather than some imperfect and perfect state. If such chemicals are banned, resorting to grow-your-own is hardly a viable alternative, since modern farming can, through economies of scale, achieve better yields and lower costs-per-output than someone tending their vegetable patch. And importing fruit and veg from countries such as Spain via air transport, for example, is also becoming less attractive an option due to increased fuel prices and governments’ taxes on air travel.
Once again, the Forgotten Man gets the shaft. This chemicals ban, like measures such as “employment rights”, paternity leave or 35-hour weeks, impose costs on the populace without a government having to take the potentially visible and unpopular step of raising taxes. Joining the economic dots is hard. I just hope that some in the MSM try and do so occasionally so that the message gets through. We bloggers cannot do it all on our own.
Update: in the comments, one person argues that I have contradicted myself by pointing to public apathy or lack of time to scrutinise EU actions, on the one hand, and my stress on the ability of consumers to read packaging labels, on the other. There is no contradiction, though. People shop daily, weekly, monthly, etc. They constantly come up against labels, look at packaging, see advertisements, surf the Net looking at products, and so on. One of the great things about markets is that it is a constant provider of information. Not always accurate, of course. By contrast, once an EU directive has been imposed, that is usually the last that any ordinary member of the public will hear about it. As soon as a law is passed, the media and political wagon rolls on.