Solving the Farmers Dilemma

This is part one of a two-part entry.

Farmers always complain. If the harvest has been bad, they complain about not having enough to sell. If the harvest has been good, they complain about prices being too low.

Actually, this is a kind of luxury problem. In earlier times, societies faced a very similar problem of much graver consequence. When societies were isolated from each other and transport of large quantities of goods over long distances was inconvenient in the best of places and impossible in most of the rest, the variability of harvests put a large burden on each individual society.

The most obvious problem is that of a failed harvest. When the harvest is too small to feed the society, a disaster happens. It may end up either starving or eating part of the seeds and livestock from which it will produce next years harvest, inducing another famine.

The ideal society, under such circumstances, has just the right size to survive such a failed harvest without diminishing this capital stock under most circumstances.

The not so obvious problem is that of good harvests. Good harvests lead to growth. Be it among the livestock, the people or even the size of the croplands. People from outside may see that food is plenty in this area and settle down, more children will survive their childhood and more children will be born. All of this seems like a good development until you remember what we said about the ideal society. Will this larger society be able to survive a failed harvest?

I was wondering about this question when I thought about why so many societies used to sacrify food. Shouldn’t a society that forgoes a sometimes significant part of its work be at a disadvantage over other societies – meaning that they should have always been rare and certainly not prevalent?

I think I already gave the rest away. The point is, that usually people thank their gods or spirits for an especially large harvest by an especially large offering. In this way, the effects of large harvests are mitigated and with them, a disasterous failure of a harvest is somewhat less likely. As such a disaster is usually more devastating than the bumper crops were beneficial, forgoing the latter is in fact an advantage.

But aren’t there plenty of stories of societies going to ruin and still sacrifying huge amounts of food? Well, nobody said the system was perfect.

This system only works, so long as it is clear what  a large harvest is. What if harvests have been unusually good for two or three decades? People tend to forget their good fortune and the bad times that came before.

When weather goes back to a less fortunate mode, such a society is put to the test of whether it went beyond its limits or not. (Or if, perhaps, it was able to transcent those limits.)

In such a situation, the system of sacrifices may have lost its grounding. Harvests may have plunged to the point where a negative offering would have been in order, given the current population. (That is, there is a stark shortage of food.)

Of course, people usually don’t just turn away from their gods and think they should simply offer more to get them really pleased and give them a better harvest next time around. Which just doesn’t work and a great disaster ensues, sometimes leaving behind ruins and head-scratching archeologists.

Feudalism worked is a similar way. Although the offerings served the much more worldly pleasures of serf’s master. Unlike the divine beings of yore, however, they could not just reduce their share of the serf’s produce after a bad harvest, but there was also no tendency to increase the “offering” to the master during a spell of bad harvests (since he certainly didn’t have an influence on the weather). In the long run, however, they ran into problems because the farmers themselves had no means or motivation to invest and improve their lands – because all the benefits would accrue to their masters.

Part 2 will discuss the market-based approach.

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