Home > Economics - General > I only read it for the pictures, honestly

I only read it for the pictures, honestly

May 2nd, 2012

The Economist gets some well-deserved derision these days, but it still delivers lots of interesting data, illustrated by graphs that are usually well designed and informative. Via Kenny Easwaran I found this table (published by EconomistDailyChart, but I haven’t yet located the chart) of annual meat consumption per person by country. The data set has plenty of anomalous features, but looks accurate enough for my purposes.

I’ve previously argued that we can feed the world if we make the right choices. . More precisely, our current food system produces more per person than is needed for adequate nutrition, and can continue do so in future if the right policy choices are made. The key problem is distribution, not production.

But the meat consumption data leads me to a more surprising conclusion.  Using current technology and with no additional diversion of food grain, the world could produce enough meet to give everyone an intake comparable to that of the average person in the Netherlands[fn1].

Here are the numbers we need to start with from the data table. Current average annual world meat consumption is 9.5 kg beef, 15kg pork and 12.5kg chicken for a total of 37kg per person per year. Netherlands average is 70 kg.

Each kg of grain-fed beef requires about 8kg of grain, compared to 2kg for chicken, and the trade-off similar when cattle are pastured on land that could be used for grain. So, 5kg of beef could be replaced by 20 kg of chicken.

The other main user of grain (apart from human consumption) is ethanol production which now takes something like 140 million tonnes a year. Fed to chickens that would produce around 70 million tonnes or 10kg per person per year. 

That would give an average of 62kg per person per year, not far below the Dutch average. To fill the remaining gap, I’ll call on the usual suspects, reductions in inefficiency and waste.

The reduction in methane emissions from cattle would almost certainly outweigh any adverse impact from reduced ethanol production (numbers on both of these effects vary so wildly that I’m not going to attempt a calculation for now).

How feasible is all this? The use of food grain for biofuels is discredited as a policy, and even the US Congress has withdrawn some support. The shift towards chicken makes economic sense, and would be accelerated if carbon pricing were applied to agriculture, which might well happen in the next couple of decades. So, world meat production could increase steadily over the next few decades, well ahead of population growth.

That still leaves the crucial problem of distribution. People in some rich countries, notably the US and Australia consume much more than the Netherlands, and that the  billion or so poorest people in the world can’t afford enough grain to eat, let alone meat. Until this changes, increasing average meat production isn’t going to solve the problem. [2]

There’s no real answer to this within the current world order, except to wait for poor people to become richer, as they have done in much of South-East Asia and are now doing, in large numbers, in China and India.

But a large part of my reason for doing exercises like this one is to consider the feasibility of a better world, even if it might be considered utopian at present. The ability of the world to feed itself, and to do so with a diet that should satisfy any reasonable person, is an important precondition. Until recently it has not been met – the total food output of the world has been barely adequate in normal times, and quite inadequate in famine years. But now, as I’ve argued it’s entirely possible.


fn1. I’ve picked the Dutch because they are supposed to be the tallest people in the world, which implies an adequate diet.

fn2. Even in a world where everyone had enough, substantial differences would persist. For example according to the data in the table, meat consumption (I’m not sure if they have a good handle on fish) in Japan is very low by developed country standards, and obviously this reflects preferences and national policies, rather than poverty.





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  1. Sam
    May 2nd, 2012 at 21:16 | #1

    You’ve replicated the substance of footnote 1 at the very end.

    Fixed now, I hope. Thanks – JQ

  2. Fran Barlow
    May 2nd, 2012 at 21:25 | #2

    How much grain is used for non-food sources apart from ethanol? (which I don’t support using for ethanol/butanol for the record) (e.g HFCS, paper products, convenience food etc)

    We could also get rid of most sugar production — that plays no useful part in human nutrition and if output fell by 90% humanity would not suffer.

    Of course if you feed that 140 million tons of grain to people instead of chickens …

  3. Sam
    May 2nd, 2012 at 21:50 | #3

    I suspect that the optimal amount of meat (from a health perspective) humans should eat per year is actually a lot lower than the Dutch level.

  4. TerjeP
    May 2nd, 2012 at 21:52 | #4

    I was vegetarian for six years but took up eating meat again in 2004 after deciding it hadn’t made me healthier. About a year ago I gave up most grain based food (pasta, rice, bread, cereal) as well as potato and substantially increased my intake of meat (especially for breakfast which is now usually eggs fish or kangaroo). I lost 17kg in 4 months (about 1kg per week) and with this new diet and some weight training I’ve had no trouble keeping the weight off. I don’t claim any expertise but I’d rather eat the cow or chicken than the grain it might be raised on.

  5. TerjeP
    May 2nd, 2012 at 21:53 | #5

    p.s. okay eggs isn’t meat but I do eat them a lot.

  6. Sam
    May 2nd, 2012 at 22:26 | #6

    No more than 6 eggs a week TerjeP, it’s bad for your cholesterol!

  7. May 2nd, 2012 at 22:33 | #7

    If you get your eggs from a plant then I may conceed they aren’t meat. Until then, an animal embryo and its fat and protein store is meat to me.

    Fran, sugar provides kilojoules. There are lots of people in the world today who would be a lot better off if they ate exactly what they eat now, plus 100 grams of sugar a day. But very few of these people live in Australia. Sugar cane is the world’s largest crop and one of the most productive, if not the most productive, in terms of food kilojoules produced per square metre. It also grows in high magnesium soils which aren’t good for most other crops. We can’t really get rid of it at the moment, but people in places like Australia could certainly get by on less.

    Personally I am hopeful we can get bacteria to excrete proteins at a lower feed cost than chickens. While it is possible to use light or an electrical gradient as a power source for this process, at the moment we are probably looking at sugar. The protein could be used as a meat extender in sausages, mince, seafood products, and anything with the word Mc in front of it. I’m already working on the marketing campaign. I’m thinking of calling it Poretabla – “Straight from the bacterium’s pore, to your table.”

  8. Ernestine Gross
    May 2nd, 2012 at 22:38 | #8

    NZ not consuming any lamb or mutton?

  9. Fran Barlow
    May 2nd, 2012 at 23:37 | #9

    @Ronald Brak

    Fran, sugar provides kilojoules. There are lots of people in the world today who would be a lot better off if they ate exactly what they eat now, plus 100 grams of sugar a day.

    They’d be even better with a kilo of complex carbohydrates. Sucrose contributes nothing but kilojoules — no protein, no fibre or enzymes, no high density lipoproteins, no vitamins or minerals — nada. The places where sugar is grown could support other food crops — fruits for example. These can be dried and shipped anywhere.

    Sugar is a luxury condiment. Until about the 17th century is was unknown in Europe and it lies at the heart of major nutritional epidemiology, along with LDLs. While I don’t agree, finally, that even using sugar crops for biofuels is good policy, it would be less worse policy than having people use their digestive tracts to process it.

    Sugar’s not the only crop that wastes land of course. Tobacco isn’t essential either — quite the reverse. If there were more food and less tobacco, I’m guessing humanity would get by OK. And hiw much land do we need to set aside to raise chocolate, coffee, tea, and the crops from which we raise alcohol? Very little.

    The discussion is moot of course because allocation of land is not done on the basis of needs or priorities but on the basis of market demand. In an unequal world, the luxury of the privileged (or their profits) will always jostle need (and every other consideration) to one side, but in purely technical terms, PrQ is right. If we wanted to feed humanity enough to keep all of us in rude good health with a reduced carbon footprint, we absolutely could.

    In terms of protein, spirulina is excellent protein and can be raised in places where other crops would be doubtful.

  10. Fran Barlow
    May 2nd, 2012 at 23:37 | #10

    oops … lost blockquotes on first paragraph.

  11. plaasmatron
    May 2nd, 2012 at 23:37 | #11

    Ernestine Gross :
    NZ not consuming any lamb or mutton?

    It seems the Economist has made a mistake there. The data that PrQ linked to shows a value of 23.1 for mutton and goat and places NZ at 4th above spain. But the graphic in the Economist has obviously omitted the m&g category, taking NZ down to 11th place. Whoops. As PrQ says, “it looks accurate enough”…

  12. plaasmatron
    May 2nd, 2012 at 23:40 | #12

    I note that they did the same with Iceland and Kuwait, resulting in them dropping out of the list altogether.

  13. Vegetarian
    May 3rd, 2012 at 02:27 | #13

    Yes, but will it be “a better world” for the chooks? Look at the conditions they’re raised in.

  14. jrkrideau
    May 3rd, 2012 at 02:34 | #14

    The missing goats and sheep have returned.


  15. Katz
    May 3rd, 2012 at 06:21 | #15

    Who eats all that pork in Israel?

    New Zealanders eat more “Other” than pork. What’s “Other”?

  16. Ikonoclast
    May 3rd, 2012 at 08:14 | #16

    I suspect the best policies to feed the humans of the world sustainably would be these.

    (1) Stabilise and reduce the world’s human population.
    (2) Feed all grain directly to people.
    (3) Allow meat/milk/egg producing animals to forage.
    (4) Supplement this foraging with food scraps and other wasted food on a basis appropriate to the animal’s natural diet. (E.g. No animal products to herbivores.)

    While people forget that the world’s population needs to be stabilised and reduced, they are failing to act on the key condition for sustainability. Most footprint analyses indicate we have already seriously overshot the world’s carrying capacity. Given the damage this overshoot is doing to the biosphere, the only possible outcome is a major collapse in human population. We can try to manage and ameliorate this collapse with pre-emptive action or we can ignore the signs and thus invite a catastrophic uncontrolled collapse.

  17. May 3rd, 2012 at 08:37 | #17

    Fran, you suggest we get rid of the world’s largest crop that provides about 10% of the world’s food kilojoules and replace it with less productive per area fruit. And you seem pretty sure this is a good idea. I’m guessing you’re a big idea sort of person. I think about getting rid of sugar cane and see lots of problems, but maybe you see opportunities. Personally I would first consider a bottom up approach and think about the difficult task of encouraging people in countries such as Australia to improve their nutrition and then let that affect sugar demand, while you seem to be suggesting a top down approach of replacing sugar cane. I seem to recall you recommending a top down approach in one or two other areas as well. I think there might be a major difference in how we approach problems.

  18. Ernestine Gross
    May 3rd, 2012 at 09:20 | #18


    I see, The Economist adopts Microsoft’s profitable strategy of product innovation and quality control.

  19. Fran Barlow
    May 3rd, 2012 at 09:41 | #19

    @Ronald Brak

    Fran, you suggest we get rid of the world’s largest crop that provides about 10% of the world’s food kilojoules and replace it with less productive per area fruit.

    Strictly speaking, I don’t. I was merely following PrQs lead on biofuels which salso wasn’t a call to legislate this out of existence but to simply pose a counterfactual to explore the technical feasibility of feeding the world. As I noted above:

    The discussion is moot of course because allocation of land is not done on the basis of needs or priorities but on the basis of market demand. In an unequal world, the luxury of the privileged (or their profits) will always jostle need (and every other consideration) to one side, but in purely technical terms, PrQ is right.

    I doubt that anything like 10% of the world’s nutrition demands refined sucrose, though I would accept that a lot more of the world’s problems with overweight and obese and diabetes were (directly and indirectly thorugh the rendering palatable of other non-nutritional digestible materials).

    I’d like to see some substantial changes in health promotion relating to food policy, but I’m off to class now, so this will need to wait.

  20. Ikonoclast
    May 3rd, 2012 at 09:45 | #20

    It is a “bottom up” process (democracy) which chooses democratic government in the first place. It is thus logical to argue (as Fran implicitly does) that democratic government should not abrogate its mandate and responsibility to act in a formal and effective “top down” manner. If we decide, as a democratic society, that market mechanisms and the corporate industrialisation of food production are failing us, as they clearly are, in the matter of producing a healthy diet outcome sustainably, then we are fully correct and justified in mandating targeted democratic over-rides of the market and corporate systems.

    For my part, I would advocate removing GST from all food and implementing Pigovian taxes where all additives (legislatively defined) including salt and sugar attracted tax rates sufficient to significantly alter consumer behaviour. Any arguments that such taxes infringe upon or distort individual liberty fail. Such taxes simply seek to modify incentives for decisions which are still freely made. Adding salts and sugars to foods is also a method of modifying incentives for decisions which are freely made. To allow self-interested corporations the power to modify incentives to eat unhealthily (by adding salt and sugar) but to deny publicly-interested, democratically elected government the power to also modify incentives (by adding taxes) in favour of fresher, healthier produce is philosophically inconsistent and indeed insupportable.

  21. May 3rd, 2012 at 11:03 | #21

    I haven’t read the book yet, but Bryan Walker’s review of “Consumptionomics” is interesting.


    As I understand it, the author wants Asia to avoid the Western free-market fundamentalist model as too flawed to provide a sustainable level of health and wellbeing.

  22. May 3rd, 2012 at 12:13 | #22

    Maybe we should encourage diets similar to those found in the countries with the longest lifespans? Hmmm… Australia is near the top of that list. Beer, fat, sugar, and vegemite for everyone!

  23. John Quiggin
    May 3rd, 2012 at 12:25 | #23

    The animal welfare problems associated with raising chickens arise, as far as I can tell from pressure to cut labor costs and space requirements. The estimates I’ve given would work just as well with free-range chickens.

  24. TerjeP
    May 3rd, 2012 at 12:41 | #24

    Any arguments that such taxes infringe upon or distort individual liberty fail. Such taxes simply seek to modify incentives for decisions which are still freely made.

    So a tax on homosexual acts wouldn’t be a violation of individual liberty. And a tax on publications that advocate a specified view point about the government would not be a violation of individual liberty. And a higher tax on soccer than AFL would not be a violation either. Interesting that you can bend society as far as you wish with incentives and claim that liberty remains unviolated.

  25. JB Cairns
    May 3rd, 2012 at 12:43 | #25


    No pasta????

    what you eat to complement red wine?

  26. David Irving (no relation)
    May 3rd, 2012 at 13:10 | #26

    TerjeP, the man who put “glib” into “glibertarian”. What Ikonoclast is suggesting is rather more like taxing tobacco than soccer. I daresy you disapprove of that as well, though, simply because it’s a tax.

  27. Jim Birch
    May 3rd, 2012 at 13:58 | #27

    From a heath perspective read meat is something you would want to minimise. Several good studies have found their cohort with the highest red meat proportion in their diet have like 20% higher cancer death risk and 30% (male) or 50% (female) risk of cardiovascular deaths. This includes controlling for other major lifestyle factors like smoking and exercise. In comparison, chicken is about neutral and fish is mildly beneficial.

    You also wouldn’t want to replace the meat with the grain used to produce it. While farmed grains provide a major health improvement when they make an adequate energy intake possible, they are a problem for us. A higher vegetable low-carbohydrate diet has about a 20% reduced all mortality hazard risk.

    These studies are done on middle aged and older people who have real risk of death from age related diseases. When you’re young you can eat just about anything and won’t notice for some time but if you want maximise your genetic potential eat chicken, fish, vegetables and fruit, and minimise sugar, grains and red meat.

  28. Fran Barlow
    May 3rd, 2012 at 14:26 | #28

    @John Quiggin

    The estimates I’ve given would work just as well with free-range chickens.

    That’s true. Of course, if we radically reduced the raising of fowl for food then we would sharply decrease also the likelihood of avian influenza. Raising animals at industrial scale is also a significant impact on GHGs.

  29. Fran Barlow
    May 3rd, 2012 at 14:45 | #29


    For my part, I would advocate removing GST from all food and implementing Pigovian taxes where all additives (legislatively defined) including salt and sugar attracted tax rates sufficient to significantly alter consumer behaviour.

    I’ve no problem in principle with having a G&ST on food, and whatever one does with taxes one wants the system not to be too complex or costly to administer. One might however have differential G&ST on foods falling below a certain nutritive value. One could consider questions such as the proportions of calories per 100g serving that were LDLs or refined sugars; the presence of salt above trace amounts, artificial colouring or flavouring and whether the product was being promoted by the use of “pack ins” or “pack ons” (typically toys or other cheap merchandise). Each product would get a rating. Confectionery and confectionary style breakfast cereals would score especially poorly. The measures would apply to food served in restaurants and take-aways.

    Surplus funds raised in this way could be used to fund local food purchase co-ops who could supply quality food staples at group purchase rates, and perhaps even run restaurants with low cost high quality meals. People could be given means-tested access to these, and staff there could run food preparation courses (cost of materials only) for those interested on site. You might even have a before and after school care facility on the same premises. Some of the older children (say 15 years+) could be allowed to pitch in and be paid a wage for working there.

    We need both a disincentive — the price increment on non-foods — and an alternative — quality food at reasonable prices, practical education in nutrition; if we are to break the cycle in which people on low incomes eat the least nutritious food merely because it’s convenient and cheap.

  30. aidan
    May 3rd, 2012 at 14:53 | #30

    Katz :
    Who eats all that pork in Israel?
    New Zealanders eat more “Other” than pork. What’s “Other”?

    I’d be tempted to say “Other” included fish, but the Japanese total for “Other” is pathetically small.

    Possum is not widely eaten. Deer?

    As for the first question, I’m guessing Christians and non-pratising Jews.

  31. John Quiggin
    May 3rd, 2012 at 15:18 | #31

    “Raising animals at industrial scale is also a significant impact on GHGs.”

    Not chickens, as I point out in the OP


  32. Ikonoclast
    May 3rd, 2012 at 16:09 | #32


    TerjP draws the long bow that my advocacy for a pigovian tax on unhealthy food additives, including added salt and suger, is tantamount to, or logically leads to, an advocacy for a tax on homosexual acts. I’ll point out first that homophobia tends in general to be an attendant characteristic of the aggressively low-tax and excessively individualistic right and not the community minded, democratic socialist left. So it is not likely that a democratic socialist advocating a pigovian tax on unhealthy food additives (from the basis of nutrition science) will be likely to abandon an overall objective, socially aware and tolerant stance to suddenly take a subjective, moralistic and judgemental stance on people’s sexual behaviour.

    Indeed, it is much more likely that the logical and rational democratic socialist will cearly see both the health and population control advantages of removing the GST from condoms and other birth control and sexual health related products. And indeed that it what we saw from the Green Left Weekly, for example, as far back as 2000 in the Rally against GST on tampons, pads and condoms.

    In more general terms, I would advance the argument that TerjeP neither understands nor has any respect for any form of democracy other than the completely faux democracy of “voting with your money” where the billionaire gets almost innumerably more votes than the aged pensioner.

  33. Fran Barlow
    May 3rd, 2012 at 16:16 | #33

    @John Quiggin

    Assuming that bar graph is right, while it’s certainly a lot better than lamb or beef, it’s still 2.6 times that of rice — the world’s most important protein source, and more than htree times that of legumes such as lentils, beans and tofu. I’d call that significant.

    Bear in mind also that chicken requires refrigeration, whereas rice and lentils do not.

    FTR, as I’ve noted here before, it is technically possible to have quite low cruelty and low environmental impact raising of meat. (see the “grass farmer” movement, Polyface Farms for example) It’s just that it is very labour-intensive and would be very much a boutique product in practice. In that situation, meat would be an absolute rarity in diets.

  34. Ikonoclast
    May 3rd, 2012 at 16:22 | #34

    @Fran Barlow

    A logical tax system would implement all ancillary taxes as pigovian taxes. The single fundamental or foundational form of tax is the tax on income whether that income be earned from personal effort or from the ownership and use of capital. This is arguably a non-pigovian but still fundamentally necessary tax if you are going to fund an effective government. Beyond this fundamental tax, taxes that broaden the tax base and have the potential to control objectively deleterious products and activities are best implemented as pigovian taxes. There is probably no reason for non-income related taxes to be anything but pigovian.

  35. Julie Thomas
    May 3rd, 2012 at 16:23 | #35

    Ronald Brack

    Australia is at the top of the list of healthy countries; it seems that this is because of our Asian population who eat a traditional Asian diet; if this group is removed our position on the list is lower. There was a piece on this on RN a few weeks ago.

  36. Fran Barlow
    May 3rd, 2012 at 16:34 | #36


    And much the same could be said of taxes on alcohol. I’d certainly favour taxes that took account of both the alcohol content and the sugar/sweetness attributes of drinks, putting them on a sliding scale.

    I had this argument repeatedly during the discussion back in 2008 on RTDs …

  37. May 3rd, 2012 at 16:46 | #37

    Julie – Oh, I see. So it should be short grain rice, squid, cabbage, pickels, and moderate amounts of saki for everybody. And vegemite. And maybe some pokkie if we’re good. Or bad. I never really liked them that much.

  38. Troy Prideaux
    May 3rd, 2012 at 16:57 | #38

    @Julie Thomas
    Not sure I’d agree with that. They do eat more fish (typically) – at least the Japanese do – which is a good thing, but typical Chinese marinades and sauces are often quite rich in sugars and sweeteners. The southern Chinese & Thai, cuisines are probably the tastiest around IMHO. Of course, take that with a few grains of salt & pepper spicing 😛

  39. May 3rd, 2012 at 17:00 | #39

    I want the tax on fat to be lower when it’s cold. Actually, why not individualise it? Pop down to the doctor’s, post a thousand dollar bond, get a monitor implanted under your skin, and when you deviate too far from healthy living you get buzzed and fined in real time.

    What about people who can’t afford a thousand dollar bond? Well, maybe you can get one that just gives electric shocks, but if this actually turns out to be a cheap way to maintain health it might end up subsidised. Actually there might be no need to fine or shock people. Just turning it into a game with points might be enough for many people. As smart phones get less dumb I’m sure we’ll see a lot of health management done through them. Smart phones that will listen out for the sound of you eating and keep track of what you buy. The people who make the hardware might love this as so many smart phones will get the hammer treatment as a result. But since many people like their phones more than many of their relatives and most relatives avoid the hammer treatment, maybe not many will be destroyed.

  40. rog
    May 3rd, 2012 at 17:02 | #40

    @aidan “other” might refer to what is classed as “meat” ie camel, goat, hare etc


  41. rog
    May 3rd, 2012 at 17:08 | #41

    Asians also eat all of the beast, they are very economical. Australians and other westerners have become very squeamish about their meat and have grown up thinking that they should only eat prepared cuts out of shrink wrap packets. We have become obsessed with germs and convenience to the detriment of quality.

  42. Jim Birch
    May 3rd, 2012 at 17:20 | #42

    While I’m generally in favour of Pigovian taxes, it’s worth remembering that you need people who are sufficiently free from stupidity, addictions and mythologies (a lot of overlap there) to be able to respond to them. Raising the cost of tobacco slows smoking but it there’s the issue of elasticity. It adds a fairly regressive tax onto people with addictions that often don’t have much capacity for change. A Pigovian tax would be appropriate for CO2 abatement but we might treat cigarette, food, etc, addictions using a more complex best-science model with carrots, sticks, education and interventions.

  43. rog
    May 3rd, 2012 at 17:27 | #43

    As my comment is in moderation ( the link I guess) I repeat that “meat” can include camel, hare, goat and a variety of beasties. It also includes many of the body parts. Suffice to say “meat” is a wide term.

    A meat product (say a pie) must contain a certain percentage of meat. If the pie says “produced in Australia” it allows for the meat to be imported but the pie being constructed in Australia.

    The composition of the imported meat may include other beast?0

    I guess that is why these products are so cheap.

  44. Ernestine Gross
    May 3rd, 2012 at 17:31 | #44

    The trouble with chicken is that they don’t grow wool (a useful ‘byproduct’ of meat that helps keeping warm in cold weather) and they don’t grow skin suitable for leather.

    And then there is the risk of specilisation of meat production. What if 80% or more of the environmentally friendly birds become affected by bird flu or some other sickness?

    Are there statistics on death from boredom (“chicken with rice” followed by “rice with chicken” and vegies and fruit)?

    Personally, I hope top-down global planning is as unsuccessful as the implicitly top-down ‘one global market’.

  45. Donald Oats
    May 3rd, 2012 at 19:10 | #45

    Chicken with chillies, oh the chillies man, as in Chicken Tindaloo, for those who find the Beef Vindaloo mild (menu item from Jasmin’s, Hindmarsh Square, Adelaide). Not in the slightest bit boring, Ernestine Gross :-;

  46. TerjeP
    May 3rd, 2012 at 20:38 | #46

    TerjP draws the long bow that my advocacy for a pigovian tax on unhealthy food additives, including added salt and suger, is tantamount to, or logically leads to, an advocacy for a tax on homosexual acts.

    No I simply rejected your suggestion that taxing stuff has no implications regarding liberty. And I offered examples to make the point. You can choose to be against liberty, or against liberty in certain circumstances but it is quite dishonest of you to say there is no issue of liberty associated with taxing selected consumer activities because people are still free to pay the tax. If that were true then a tax on homosexual acts would have no impact on liberty because homosexuals would be free to pay the tax. I’m not saying that a tax on salt leads to a tax on homosexual acts or that the two taxes are equivalent but I do reject your notion that taxes have zero impact on liberty. If I wish to consume salt it really is none of your damn business.

  47. May 4th, 2012 at 00:15 | #47

    A “Zero Tax” advocate?

    No tax? Really?

    Tax = no liberty.

  48. TerjeP
    May 4th, 2012 at 09:07 | #48

    Megan – I’m a minarchist not an anarchist. I’m not convinced that having no tax will maximises liberty. I do think zero tax is a closer approximation to the optimal tax rate than what we have today. However that isn’t the issue. My point is that it is stupid to pretend that taxation entails no infringement of liberty. By all means advocate infringing liberty for some “higher cause” like reducing salt consumption but don’t be so dishonest as to claim that there is no infringement.

    Liberty is about process. It says that our interactions as humans should be voluntary. Utility is about outcomes. You might argue that it is worth setting aside liberty and using coersion to achieve a reduction in salt consumption because you believe this increases overall utility. That would be intellectually honest. But Ikonoclast didn’t opt for intellectual honesty but instead tried to use sly language to pretend that using force to get people to lower salt consumption doesn’t entail any use of force.

  49. Jim Birch
    May 4th, 2012 at 09:45 | #49

    I can’t quite understand your position, maybe you could clarify:

    If Telstra ups the cost of a phone call does that have implications for liberty?

    If your corner shop increases their markup on bread?

    Thanks. It seems to me that it would be inconsistent not to accept these kind of implications but I’m not sure what a libertarian would think.

  50. Tom
    May 4th, 2012 at 11:04 | #50


    In my opinion, tax do change people’s behaviour over the choice they make. However, people can have relatively more freedom than they might have now but in a sense “real freedom” is something that can never be achieved as long as they are alive.

    The fact is that freedom have trade-offs, e.g. tax free on alcohol, tobacco or freedom in dangerous addictive drug usage will likely to cause harm to people’s health and thus reducing their freedom towards healthiness and independent from medical drug and treatment. The same also applies to crime and tort.

    The important thing that I think most commentators here (including myself) believe in, is finding the best balance in freedom, e.g. freedom from excessive financial constraints for low income earners, freedom from diseases etc. Unfortunately, these things does not come naturally in an absolutely unregulated society. The example I love using for trade-offs in freedom is the US.

    Do you really believe that there more freedom in the US (not much different in Australia as well) when the young generation are advised to “get a degree that will earn you money to live”, instead of the freedom to chase their dreams and still have relatively less financial constraints on living in a more regulated economy such as Denmark. I’m pretty sure that for someone who has being chasing freedom for such a long time like you would of thought about the trade-offs between freedom.

    Back to the topic, I personally against putting up a tax on sugar and salt because I love using them in cooking. Besides, they aren’t something that is as dangerous as alcohol or tobacco. However, I think if fruit and vegetables can be off from GST; that price distortion should provide an incentive for more people to consume them along with meat which should improve the general health from balanced nutrient consumption.

  51. Fran Barlow
    May 4th, 2012 at 11:43 | #51


    I’m not convinced that having no tax will maximise liberty.

    That’s inconsistent with your other position:

    My point is that it is stupid to pretend that taxation entails no infringement of liberty.

    Which is it, for you?

    Then suabstantive problem for you is that yours is a fundamentalist position. “Liberty” is a fairly nebulous concept and it embraces more than the discretion of all us individual sovereigns to act. It’s also a measure of the constraints on others arising from discretion exercised by some. Some taxes or levies may well have a net negative impact on all categories of liberty — and some may have no upside at all. Your hypothetic “tax on homs#[email protected] acts might be such a thing. Yet some wil have a net positive impact on liberty, by relieving others of impositions that would arise but for the tax. One can’t work out which of these is the better evaluation merely by deciding wether something is failry called a tax or levy.

    It may well be that a levy imposed in part on products containing more than trace NaCl negatively affects the liberty of people wanting to consume products with lots of it in it. The question is whether the levy leads to less illness, more productive lives and so forth and whether the boon to the person paying more for salt-based products in practice or people in general exceeds this loss.

  52. Jim Birch
    May 4th, 2012 at 14:11 | #52

    Good pick up, Fran. It’s welcome respite when these discussions actually hit a simple point of logic. 🙂

    It may stupid to pretend that taxation entails no infringement of liberty but it is (at least) equally stupid to pretend that taxation cannot enhance liberty.

    The problem for libertarians is that their focus on restricting government imposition on the impeccant individual means they only consider a tiny domain for liberty – a open analysis of a tax on salt content would include the profound loss of liberty that comes with conditions like heart disease.

  53. TerjeP
    May 4th, 2012 at 14:23 | #53

    The important thing that I think most commentators here (including myself) believe in, is finding the best balance in freedom

    Tom – that is an honest and sensible outlook. Even though I may have different conclusions regarding what is “best” I share the outlook.

    In contrast Ikonoclast simply says there is no balancing to be done because taxation has no impact on liberty. This is intellectually lazy and dishonest.

  54. TerjeP
    May 4th, 2012 at 14:29 | #54

    Fran – there is no contradiction between my two statements. Just to spell it out for you:-

    1. Taxation infringes on liberty.
    2. It is utopian to believe in a society where there is no infringement on society.
    3. Deliberately violating liberty may on the margin be necessary if the goal is to maximise liberty.

    The last point is somewhat analogous to saying that if we hate forest fires and want to minimise forest fires then it may sometimes be necessary to light forest fires. It’s called back burning.

  55. TerjeP
    May 4th, 2012 at 14:30 | #55

    Last word on point 2 should be “liberty” not “society”.

  56. Ernestine Gross
    May 4th, 2012 at 14:32 | #56



    It seems to me your notion of ‘liberty’ short-changes the intelligence of people, including their understanding of what is known in game theory as ‘a binding constraint’. To illustrate, consider a society where each and every member ‘in principle’ agrees with your value of ‘liberty’ (voluntary actions) but in this society, people are not constrained to have only one value. For example each and every member in this society also values (desirable) intellectual honesty and social justice and they all know effort and dilligence are not the only determining factor for people to make a ‘decent living’. All of them agree on the notion of ‘decent living’. All of them are so intelligent as to know that any one of them at one point in time could have ‘bad luck’ regarding making a ‘decent living’ (they know ‘life is risky’). Each of the members knows that a social security system is in principle desirable to insure against ‘bad luck’. How much would an individual be prepared to pay, given that he or she cannot be sure that others will contribute a comparable amount? This is the problem of absence of a binding constraint on each and every member to adher to decisions which are individually optimal if and only if everybody else adhers to their individuallly optimal decision, given the decision of all others. Clearly, having a taxing agent in the society would provide a binding constraint (setting aside the tax cheats). Sometimes people who reason like this are said to have ‘enlightened self-interest’.

  57. Xevram
    May 4th, 2012 at 15:00 | #57

    LOL on the “Pigovian Tax”, an entirely new concept for me to get my head around.

    “Pigovian taxes were theorized to correct negative externalities by imposing an additional marginal cost on a producer. By penalizing an unfavorable behavior, economic policymakers believe that the tax system would discourage or limit the activity which causes the negative externality. ” Source.. http://astriddare.wordpress.com/2011/04/05/pigovian-taxes/

    So that would be something like our Price on Carbon, (no it is not a tax).

  58. Fran Barlow
    May 4th, 2012 at 15:11 | #58


    Although, it would be possible to have a pigovian tax approach to reducing the impact of carbon emissions. For a range of reasons, I don’t think this would be optimal in practice, but certainly, one could design a system that operated in this way.

  59. Ikonoclast
    May 4th, 2012 at 15:14 | #59

    TerjeP’s notions of “liberty” are very restrictive, individualist and peculiar in my opinion. One of my views on liberty is that human liberty is really a social and socially relative construct as well as an individual construct. As soon as liberty becomes entirely an atomistic individualist construct it becomes solipsistic. I want the real, socially-connected liberty of living in a publicly and socially concerned society where I can be confident that atomistic selfishness and competiveness are not the only operative forces.

    As a side issue, for TerjeP to believe that democratically determined taxes are more on infrigement on liberty than privately and corporately determined profit margins, cartel behaviour and so on is quite untenable. And to believe that profiteering, monopolistic and/or cartel style behaviour wouldn’t occur on a large scale in a minarchist state is to be extraordinarily naive.

  60. Ikonoclast
    May 4th, 2012 at 15:18 | #60

    @Ernestine Gross

    BTW Ernestine, I totally agree with your reasoning there. It’s logica and very well expressed. It’s good to be able to agree somtimes (as you and I don’t see eye to eye on some of the micro/macro debates of economics).

  61. Ernestine Gross
    May 4th, 2012 at 18:34 | #61


    Words get in the way – this is how I see it. I am not into economic schools of thought and socio-economic-political category labels. To illustrate how these words can get in the way, most if not all of your writings makes sense to me but for the word ‘dirigism’. My interests are in what some people call analytical economics. So, in a sense, I don’t fit into many discussions but JQ tolerates me and I very much appreciate his blog.

  62. Ikonoclast
    May 4th, 2012 at 19:53 | #62

    @Ernestine Gross

    No doubt you are referring to my anglicised spelling.

    “Dirigisme is from the French. In English it is also “dirigism”, although both spellings are used by the OED.” – Wikipedia.

    “Dirigisme is an economy in which the government exerts strong directive influence. It designates a mainly capitalist economy with strong directive, as opposed to merely regulatory, economic participation by the state.

    Most modern economies can be characterized as dirigiste to some degree – for instance, state economic action may be exercised through subsidizing research and developing new technologies, or through government procurement, especially military (i.e. a form of mixed economy).”- Wikipedia.

    One of the best modern examples of effective dirigisme, IMO, comes from the heyday (1950s and 1960s) of MITI (Ministry of International trade and Industry) in Japan.


  63. TerjeP
    May 4th, 2012 at 21:34 | #63

    Ernestine – you seem to be referring to the free rider problem and the virtue of a welfare state in dealing with that problem through compulsory contribution. Ironically the welfare state creates it’s own set of free rider problems. In any case there are ways to deal with these sort of collective concerns without the state taking over. Exclusion being one means. Friendly societies did a good job providing welfare, based purely on voluntary action and contribution, well before the state nationalised what they were doing.

  64. Ernestine Gross
    May 4th, 2012 at 22:14 | #64

    TerjeP, with a bit of luck, almost everything works on some occasions. For example, exclusion works if there is already a, lets call it, a coalition. Successive exclusion results in individuals in isolation. Friendly societies may or may not do a good job in some sense but , if I understand correctly, they deal with the consequences – after the event – of ‘bad luck’ while the idea of achieving binding commitments is ex-ante. The term ‘welfare state’ is a bit loaded by now – no? The choice of an institutional framework involving a taxing agent is also voluntary (as described). This is not to say that any arbitrary taxing agent would be consistent with the idea (hence ongoing debates about the appropriate taxation system in a democracy with enlightened self-interested people). Anyway, I said what I felt I could contribute.

  65. Chris Warren
    May 4th, 2012 at 23:23 | #65


    Ironically the welfare state creates it’s own set of free rider problems.

    What is the evidence? Something you’ve read on Bolt’s Blog? T-party rant?

    In Australia access to the welfare state is highly regulated and any free-riders here pale in significance to the problems caused by greedy capitalists.

    Why do we always get such attacks on people forced to live on welfare?

    Europe now needs welfare for its workers and in the USA 14% of the population lives on ‘food stamps’.

  66. TerjeP
    May 5th, 2012 at 07:17 | #66

    What is the evidence? Something you’ve read on Bolt’s Blog? T-party rant?

    How about my own eyes and my own life experience. Maybe you live in a palace high on a hill or some distant cave. There are none so blind as those who will not see.

  67. Julie Thomas
    May 5th, 2012 at 07:45 | #67

    TerjeP read some of the evidence that shows that what you ‘see’ and your ‘life experience’ are limited by the inability of your brain to process this evidence without prejudice, particularly since you are such a strong ‘believer’ in your ideology.

    My eyes and life experience of being on welfare most of my life, tell me something very different about the worth and necessity of state provided welfare.

    The friendly societies you talk about were not so friendly to those they judged to be undeserving poor and ‘welfare’ provided by charity is, for some people, a fate worse than death – so much pride some of us have we’d rather starve than accept charity provided by the rich and powerful who stole the earths’ resources from the meek and gentle, and then structured society so that those who are not greedy and selfish will always ‘fail’.

  68. Nick
    May 5th, 2012 at 07:52 | #68

    Your eyes deceive you, Terje. The cost of tax evasion to the system dwarfs the cost of welfare cheats by some ten to one. But you’ll never hear anyone calling for a ‘dob in a tax evader’ scheme, or see Today Tonight knocking on the door of well to do business owners who squirrel several thousand dollars a year away.

  69. Julie Thomas
    May 5th, 2012 at 08:33 | #69

    Can we expect people who ‘believe’ that tax is theft, to be able to follow the argument that tax evasion is as much a crime as welfare fraud?

  70. Katz
    May 5th, 2012 at 09:14 | #70

    Maybe New Zealanders eat lots of rabbit.

  71. Nick
    May 5th, 2012 at 11:28 | #71

    We’ll see, Julie. I tried to explain it to an in-law yesterday and didn’t have much luck. Or, rather, it wasn’t that he couldn’t accept it was just as much a crime – it was that it didn’t matter! It was like asking someone with a lifetime of anger directed at one group of people to suddenly shift that anger onto another group of people. No matter, I’ve got years to grind away at him. He’ll wish his daughter never met me. Actually, that’s not true…I think he’s rapt he has someone to argue with! (I’m not displeased either)

    Katz, there’s only one thing you need to remember about NZers…they’ll steal your couch if you give them half a chance. While I was looking forward to calling up a few friends and asking them what they eat…is it possible you misread that table a bit 😉

  72. Ernestine Gross
    May 5th, 2012 at 13:38 | #72


    The Economist made a correction.

  73. Julie Thomas
    May 5th, 2012 at 14:48 | #73

    Nick I am frequently delusional and somewhat obsessive but it seems to me that there are some very interesting new ideas from evolutionary biology/psychology about the way the human brain works and soon this evidence will provide a rational story that explains to all intelligent people why humans are they way we are.

    I haven’t read it yet but several reviews of the sociobiologist E.O. Wilson’s new book indicate that it is worth reading. I also note that there is new group of libertarians who seem to understand that people aren’t blank slates and the market isn’t an even playing field; they are called bleeding heart libertarians.

    But we must not derail the thread although it is much fun to speculate on the flaws of the ‘other’.

  74. Nick
    May 6th, 2012 at 11:43 | #74

    Thanks, Julie. The first three chapters are on google books if you’re interested…happy to discuss one day.

  75. Katz
    May 6th, 2012 at 12:41 | #75

    The Economist habit appears to be catching:

    During the procedures the five men [Guantanamo Bay defendants in their “trial” for for acts deemed to be terrorism] mostly kept their eyes fixed on the ground. Two of them were reading a book which appeared to be the Koran, while they were also passing a copy of The Economist magazine among themselves.


  76. Chris Warren
    May 6th, 2012 at 13:04 | #76


    See what ??????????

    You were asked for evidence ?

    Just saying ‘things I see with my eye’ without specifying what this is, does not help.

    You are just running on dogma.

  77. Julie Thomas
    May 6th, 2012 at 15:19 | #77

    It’s quite interesting how dodgy eye-witness evidence is


  78. May 6th, 2012 at 20:53 | #78

    For those who are worried about boredom I will mention that chicken is not the only organism with a low feed conversion ratio. Fish can have a much lower ratio and insects can apparently have a ratio half that of chicken. If someone wants a kilo of beef, they can just forgo four kilos of chicken to get it. Or replace five kilos of chicken with five kilos of aquacultured salmon and a kilo of beef. Or replace four kilos of chicken with a kilo of beef and four kilos of crickets. But the details don’t really matter, as John’s post is just a very interesting thought experiment to show what is possible and we probably shouldn’t get too hung up on the details.

  79. TerjeP
    May 7th, 2012 at 09:10 | #79

    @Chris Warren

    Actually it was you that asked for evidence.

  80. TerjeP
    May 7th, 2012 at 09:12 | #80

    Oops. I misread your latest comment. My apology. Ignore my comment above.

  81. NickR
    May 7th, 2012 at 09:33 | #81

    Nick, I have seen figures as high as 50-1. Am not sure how reliable they are, but either way tax evasion is a much bigger scam than welfare fraud.

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