Washington Post plumbs new depths in poor economic reporting

A Washington Post reporter describes a mother in Niger desperately trying to keep her young children from starving, and then tries to explain the hunger in Niger:

. . . they are discovering some unexpected reasons for the hunger crisis in Niger:

It is the result not only of food shortages but a host of other problems, including vendor profiteering, a government policy shift toward a free market, and a decline in the traditional culture of generosity that once helped communities in Niger survive cyclical periods of scarcity.

In a country adopting free market policies, the suffering caused by a poor harvest has been dramatically compounded by a surge in food prices and, many people here suspect, profiteering by a burgeoning community of traders, who in recent years have been freed from government price controls and other mechanisms that once balanced market forces.

"Free market policies" and "profiteering" are causing starvation? And what, pray tell, is the evidence for this? One "local radio journalist" says people "are making profit out of this whole situation" and a U.N. report concludes that prices have "shot up sharply because of profiteering".

That's it. On the strength of that evidence a Washington Post journalist feels free to slander markets.

If this was given as a test answer in my introductory economics class, I'd be pleased to give it an F. Here's why.

The author is comparing the current free market to previous regimes. There are two possibilities for those previous regimes. One is that the government used to subsidize food production and distribution.? In that case food prices could well have been much lower then they are today and there would have been enough food for everyone who wanted it at those low prices. Surely that would be better? No, not surely. The government would have had to get the money to pay the subsidy from somewhere. That money might have paid for disinfecting water or for vaccinating children or for medical treatment of all citizens or for schools. Given that, it's not at all clear that subsidizing food was, or is, the government's best policy.

The other possibility is that the goverment maintained the price of food below the equilibrium price through the use of force. That policy would have also kept the price of food low, but it would have resulted in a significant restriction of the amount of food available. Some people would have gotten food cheaply, but many other people would not gotten any. (If they starved, they obviously wouldn't have been available for journalists to interview.) Also awful, price controls would have decreased the incentive of Niger's farmers to grow food and also decreased the incentive of farmers in other countries to ship food to Niger. The "free market" and "profiteering" are certainly preferable to that.

And this possibility seem to be the one that held most recently--the article states that in 1993, "the government scrapped price controls".?

The author has almost no evidence to support his claim to begin with; that his conclusion is gravely at odds with basic economics should also be held against him. That he is writing about a tragedy . . . well, it gives new meaning to the phrase "adding insult to injury".

Note: after drafting this I saw that at least two commentators were as appalled as I was by the article: see Melana Zyla Vickers and Don Boudreaux.