Thursday, May 01, 2008

The politics behind "Can Science Save the Banana?"

In this episode of the Scientific American podcast, a botanist talks about the science and history of bananas. One interesting political observation struck me during the talk. The guy was talking about how plant diseases have made growing bananas difficult. When a fungus infestation would break out in a plantation, the best approach was to just up and move to a new location. The author said, that this required lots of free land. He also said it required slave labor. Slave labor and free land. In order to get both of those, you had to buy a government. He said that's basically why in the 20th century they called some of these countries "banana republics."

Again, the idea of "free land and slave labor" for companies struck me. I remember doing a lot of reading about the political controversies in Latin America in the 1980's. Those who were "conservative" on the issues seemed to be on the side of the banana companies and the governments. That supporting the governments was ultimately a support of private property rights, "classical liberalism", "free markets", freedom, liberty, etc. Granted, you probably didn't want the rebels to actually take over, but the struggle against the plantations I feel was unfairly painted as being merely a campaign against freedom. "Slave labor and free land" don't sound like things Adam Smith was in favor of. I wonder, in contrast, to what extent if the plantations were not violating all sorts of principles of liberty, we wouldn't have had all those problems.

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