Early colonists celebrated their harvest as early as 1621, with a three-day-long festival involving both natives and newcomers. President George Washington named Nov. 26, 1789 as a day of thanksgiving devoted to: “the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.” And President Abraham Lincoln created the modern Thanksgiving Day tradition when he announced, in 1863, that the third Thursday of November would henceforth be celebrated as an official national holiday.
Today’s celebrations revolve around food; it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without heaping helpings of turkey and pumpkin pie. But that, like setting aside a holiday to give thanks, is uniquely American. After all, for most of human history people lived from hand to mouth. They considered themselves fortunate if they could eke out just enough to feed themselves.
It’s worth giving thanks, then, simply for the existence of the American food supply. But that raises an important question: Just why does the U.S. generate such an abundance of food? The answer is that our government promotes a (mostly) free market in the production, distribution and sale of food. That means prices are flexible: they rise when there are more food buyers than sellers. But that also prevents shortages. You can get what you need, you just must be willing to pay the price.
Take this year as an example. The American Midwest suffered through its worst drought in more than 50 years. Corn production was down 13 percent, prices were up 63 percent. And yet food remains plentiful here.
Compare that to a recent famine in Africa. In 2011, tens of thousands of Somalians perished during a drought. The president of Refugees International wrote: “the famine is a result of a lack of governance and direct human actions which have deprived millions of people access to food.” Wolfgang Fengler, an economist for the World Bank, adds: “Droughts have occurred over and again, but you need bad policymaking for that to lead to a famine.”
Indeed, famine and food shortages are almost always man-made.
In China, Chairman Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” triggered a famine that killed an estimated 20-30 million people. In Ukraine in the 1930s, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin triggered a famine that killed an estimated 10 million people. And in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge caused famine as part of its murderous communist revolution. About half the country’s population was killed.
In the hands of a cruel government, or in the absence of effective government, food becomes a weapon.
Of course, the U.S. is far from perfect. Because of federal policies, about 40 percent of our corn crop is converted into ethanol and burned instead of being used as food. The governors of seven states had asked the Environmental Protection Agency to suspend its renewable fuel standard program, so corn could be sold as food instead of fuel. But last week, EPA refused. Think of that every time you see the warning on a gas pump that its fuel contains 10 percent ethanol.
Also, think of this: a key reason the U.S. tried to develop biofuels in the first place was so our country could reduce its dependence on imported fuel. But just last week, the International Energy Agency announced we may do that on our own. The U.S. is expected to be the world’s largest oil producing nation by 2020, mostly because of hydraulic fracturing.
Fracking allows companies to get at oil and gas in tight rock formations. It’s been used for decades. But private companies, seeking profit because the prices of fossil fuels have been rising, have managed to expand it and put it to use on a large scale. It’s the free market at work.
Our Founders wrote a Constitution that encouraged economic growth and protected property rights and markets. We’ve all reaped the benefits, in food, energy and thousands of other ways. That’s something to celebrate, this week and every week.