I married off my only daughter last weekend, so naturally this Associated Press story out of Lahore, Pakistan, caught my eye:
"Punjab province's newly elected leaders announced that starting this month they would strictly enforce an often ignored law that limits wedding feasts to one main dish a measure welcomed by Pakistanis struggling with a sagging economy and rising prices."
One main dish? Where was the Utah Legislature when I needed them?
I'm joking, of course. Thanks to her practical-minded parents and in-laws, my daughter's wedding was tasteful and modest, with plenty of good things for all, made possible by helpful hands and, in some cases, donated labor.
But we didn't need the government's help to make that happen.
By contrast, pity poor Mohammad Imran, who was quoted as saying how thankful he was to the government in Punjab because he was having trouble affording the six entrees he had planned for his cousin's wedding. Now he could provide only one, while presumably shrugging his shoulders as if to say, "What can you do? You can't fight City Hall."
Before I go any further, I understand that powerful cultural forces are at work in Pakistan. Weddings can last several weeks. People begin saving for them as soon as a girl is born. There are cultural expectations that, if not met, could leave someone feeling humiliated. Those are huge burdens in a country where the yearly per capita income is about $800.
Still, government has no business making criminals out of people who want to serve more than one dish.
But then, the leaders in Punjab province aren't much different from the leaders here or anywhere else in the world. Few of them understand basic economics.
In case you haven't been to a store lately, food prices are going ... well, bananas. The same can be said for gasoline. But the way governments are reacting is bananas, as well.
A recent editorial in Barron's summed up the madness. Russia has levied a 40 percent tax on wheat exports, Ukraine put a quota on exports and Vietnam banned foreign rice altogether. The Philippines cut off trade, and Singapore has begun stockpiling rice. They're all hoarding and shutting their doors.
And lest you think nutty ideas come from only foreign leaders, U.S. politicians have begun talking about raising taxes, including tariffs on imports. Some would counter high gas prices by taxing oil companies, as if they could squeeze a balloon on one side without causing it to bulge on the other. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., went so far as to butcher history by accusing President Bush of acting like President Herbert Hoover doing nothing in the face of a crisis. Actually, Hoover did two things that helped turn an economic downturn into a depression. He restricted trade and raised taxes.
Congress is set to override a presidential veto and pass a farm bill that continues a decades-long tradition of, as Barron's put it, wrapping "farmers in so many subsidies and protections that prices mean almost nothing."
The free market would respond to worldwide food inflation by prompting farmers to produce more, but the free market is in chains. American farmers are paid to grow corn for motor fuel. And even if they weren't also paid to leave their fields fallow, they couldn't sell much to needy countries because of protectionist policies. By the same token, struggling Third World farmers can't sell what they grow to us because of our policies.
Not every country is nutty. As the Wall Street Journal recently noted, Jakarta has cut fuel subsidies. And for all the disdain some here show toward Mexico, Mexican President Felipe Calderon has eliminated most import tariffs on wheat, rice, corn, soy, soymeal and fertilizer, even though farmers and businesses down there are howling mad.
Apparently, he understands that the world prospers through trade, and that protectionism hurts the poor while it makes the rich richer.Or, put differently, a worldwide free market would let both Mohammad Imran and my daughter have all the food they wanted at weddings for much less.