The lesson of large mutant orange cauliflowers

If you ask me, the leaders debates would have been greatly improved by the presence of a large orange cauliflower at one of the podiums. Cynics might say they would have been greatly improved by almost anything, including a sudden loss of electrical power in the hall. But I am in earnest. And no, it's not science fiction. Of course a large orange cauliflower would not have interrupted constantly, espoused a philosophy directly contrary to its old one, urged the destruction of the country, or persistently accused its opponent of wanting to buy "aircraft carriers'' it knew were the same multi-purpose helicopter-capable supply ships it had promised to purchase in a speech at CFB Gagetown in mid-April. But nor would any number of other inanimate objects.

Large orange cauliflowers offer far more direct merits. You see, after a mutant orange cauliflower appeared on a farm north of Toronto in 1970, food scientists set about breeding ones that didn't taste worse than the standard white kind (surely not that big a challenge) and now they are all the rage in chic New York restaurants. Whereas, in 1970 the federal government was paying half the cost of medicare and now... Compare and contrast, as they say on college exams.

The story of orange cauliflower, discovered by accident, improved by science and mass-produced by free enterprise, was just one such in the Citizen this week. That same article, quoting a plant scientist, noted that "Twenty years ago you would probably find only 20 or 30 types of produce in a supermarket. Now you find 20 or 30 types of peppers."

And a health feature on Wednesday noted that through changes in chicken feed and breeding, eggs now have two-thirds less cholesterol than 10 years ago. Possibly just in time for us to discover the giant government scare campaign against cholesterol had the same value as its advice to eat tons of carbs.

Markets are not perfect. No human institution is. But their fast and flexible response to our desires lets us try various solutions to our problems. If anything markets are too fast; with a baffling range of high-tech basketball shoes affordable to the average feckless teen, another Citizen story noted, marketers can barely keep up as trends change so fast things get dismissed half-ironically as "so five seconds ago.''

Did you get even a hint during the debate that the private market economy was fulfilling its promise so well we may drown in fat-free soy latte? (Or that a recent survey on what was "most priceless'' about Canada got "freedom'' most often, at 24 per cent, with tolerance a distant second at six percent, though as 28 per cent of us tell pollsters we will give blood but only 3.7 per cent do it, we may be readier to praise freedom in theory than to shoulder its burdens in practice.)

Or were the leaders droning on as if only government mattered and the entire private sphere of human existence were a sad and sordid activity carried out by losers in dingy alleys between the glorious skyscrapers of state enterprise?

Did even Stephen Harper make favourable passing reference to free enterprise? As for the other three, the explanation cannot be that of course they didn't praise markets because they are social democrats. Such a philosophy should be the result, not the cause, of a failure to see the merits of markets, and subject to revision in the face of overwhelming evidence. So did Mr. Martin, Mr. Layton and Mr. Duceppe fail to notice that markets keep their promises and politicians do not, or are they just hoping to hush it up?

To me the implications of the wildly different experience you will have in any supermarket than any government department are obvious: When possible rely on markets, and incorporate into governments as many features of markets as possible. (It's much harder than some people think and I have no time for public-private partnerships, but I'll take decentralization over megacities.)

Markets cannot solve all our problems, and can even mislead searchers for meaning down futile hedonistic paths. Or sell them an eggplant. But they do solve the problems they set themselves including some very important ones. As for apparent frivolities like orange cauliflower, it turns out to be less work for farmers than the white kind, whose leaves must be tied shut lest the sun deprive it of the pallid hue that suits its ghastly flavour. And healthier for consumers, because what makes it orange in sunlight is wholesome beta-carotene which we convert to vitamin A.

So forget those debates and watch Attack of the Mutant Orange Cauliflowers.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson