Imperfect information

Market stallAnother assumption that underlies the libertarian model is that everyone involved in the market knows what everyone else is doing. Take, for example, a vegetable market. The customer approaches his selected greengrocer because he has already compared its prices with those of every other greengrocer in town. The model also assumes that every item on sale is equally fresh and equally desirable – in other words that the customer has all the information he needs if he is to truly compare like with like. Such a market, of course, exists only in our imagination. In practice, greengrocers sell all kinds of vegetables at all kinds of prices and our choice is governed by instinct as much as anything else. However we do assume that the vegetables on display are fresh and as described. These days, strict laws governing the sale of foodstuff mean we are safe to do so. Unfortunately that hasn’t always been the case.

The first major survey of the adulteration of food in England was published by the chemist Frederick Accum in 1820. It was entitled ‘A Treatise on Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons: exhibiting the fraudulent sophistications of bread, beer, wine, spiritous liquors, tea, coffee, cream, confectionery, vinegar, mustard, pepper, cheese, olive oil, pickles, and other articles employed in domestic economy.’ In it Accum described how bakers were adding gypsum, chalk and pipe clay to their produce, while wine was being clarified with not only gypsum but also molten lead. ‘Green tea’ was being made by adding copper carbonate to conventional mixes while lemonade was being flavoured with sulphuric acid in place of more expensive lemons. Sulphuric acid was also used to age beer that was as often as not already watered down. Cayenne pepper was being augmented with red lead, while pickles and sweets were boiled with a copper coin to turn them green. Reviewing the work, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine observed:

Melancholy as these details are, there is something almost ludicrous, we think, in the very extent to which the deceptions are carried. So inextricably are we all immersed in this mighty labyrinth of fraud, that even the venders of poison themselves are forced, by a sort of retributive justice, to swallow it in their turn. Thus the apothecary, who sells the poisonous ingredients to the brewer, chuckles over his roguery, and swallows his own drugs in his daily copious exhibitions of Brown stout. The brewer, in his turn, is poisoned by the baker, the wine-merchant, and the grocer. And, whenever the baker’s stomach fails him, he meets his coup de grace in the adulterated drugs of his friend the apothecary, whose health he has been gradually contributing to undermine, by feeding him every morning on chalk and alum, in the shape of hot rolls.” (‘There is Death in the Pot’, Feb 1820)

Accum’s book sold well and made him a lot of enemies, primarily because he named many who had been convicted of adulterating food. However, following a curious incident at the Royal Institution which resulted in Accum being accused of theft and leaving the country shortly after, little was done until Thomas Wakley, editor of the influential medical journal The Lancet, joined forces with the physician Arthur Hill Hassall to publish a series of articles based on the analysis of common foodstuffs using the latest scientific methods. In 1855, Hassall published a collection of these articles as ‘Food and its adulterations; comprising the reports of the Analytical sanitary commission of “The Lancet” for the years 1851 to 1854 inclusive, revised and extended.’ In response the government established a Committee of Inquiry with the result that the Food Adulteration Act was passed in 1860 and periodically strengthened, and the Society of Public Analysts was set up in 1874 to maintain a network of public analysts across the country (Coley, 2005). Although many complain at the additives that can still legally be added to foodstuffs, such legislation does at least mean that we know what we are buying.

Such initiatives don’t always have to be imposed by government. Sometimes it is the suppliers themselves who realise that they can expand their market by giving their customers guarantees as to the quality of their product. The Fairtrade Certification Mark is an example. Serving to indicate that the producers of a product are being paid a fair price for their work, it started in the 1950s as a loose partnership between charitable importers in the First World and small-scale producers in the Third World. By the end of 2007 the initiative represented 1.5 million farmers and workers in 58 countries, and the Fairtrade label is now a common sight in supermarkets. Nevertheless companies do have a vested interest in making it harder for you to compare products (witness the profusion of incompatible mobile phone tariffs), so government intervention is often the only answer.

The speculative bubble →