Political Order, Political Decay and Expanding the Role of Food Labeling


Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

The Second Coming, W. B. Yeats, 1919.


The central points  of Francis Fukuyama’s new book, Political Order and Political Decay:  From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy 1 , are that the state is necessary to deliver collective goods to society, and that it will always be subject to decay. The tendency to decay exists because of a natural human failing of ruling elites, they tend to allocate power to their family and friends. The rule of agrarian societies by family and friends of military aristocrats was the norm in human society since the development of agriculture and the urban society which it allowed, some 5000 years ago. Because the state has control of the legitimate use of force to enforce the rules of collective life, the problem of limiting the power of the state will also always exist. In the long term the citizens have an interest to not let the power of violence fall in the hands of the friends and family of the head of state. The rule of law and democratic accountability provide means of limiting state power. Moral constraints on the use of power, such as those which constrain the modern and traditional governments of China, can provide an alternative to the rule of law and democratic accountability, but not one that is as broadly applicable as various combinations of the rule of law and democratic accountability. Countries with the appropriate cultural background are rare.

Those of us in the seed business have a vital interest in the rule of law, especially the laws pertaining to property and ownership rights: the rights to new plant varieties and to the products of innovative biotechnology which may be placed into plant varieties.  As organizations and breeders we have an instrumental interest in democratic accountability because it provides a means for the passage of laws granting ownership rights to breeders and the companies which employ them.  As individuals we have an interest in citizenship which recognizes our voice in public affairs, like other people in society.  The latter is anything but instrumental.  It forms the basis of our identity as citizens in liberal societies.

We in the seed business are also dependent on the state to provide a regulatory framework. This is clear in the case of biotechnology.  The science of biotechnology can in theory be used to create harmful organisms. The ability of the government to assure food consumers that particular applications of biotechnology are safe is a valid government function that allows society to benefit from the use of improved technology. Fukuyama is strongly opposed to the attitude found in the Tea Party that the “goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” 2 The purpose of the book is to show the need for big government, even when there is a need to control the possibility that it might be corrupted.

The theoretical opposition which the seed businesses and other supporters of the liberal world of the world encounter comes in 2 main categories.  There are class based theories in the Marxian tradition and there are which are postmodern which are based on various forms of identity politics.  Both share the assumption that the threat from the pre-modern military aristocrats has disappeared forever.  Whereas Fukuyama sees the land rights of middle classes and industry owners as providing protection that the state will not be hijacked  by military men who would put their family and friends in power for generations, in the Marxian tradition this liberal democracy is characterized as just an excuse to subjugate the working classes and deprive them of the means of production.

The post-Marxist or post-class division opponents of property rights and the rule of law reject not only the capitalist order but the centralized socialist order as well.  They object not so much to the economic power of middle classes and industrial owners as embodied in the laws of liberal democracy, but to the use of the state as a means to form national cultures.  Activist theoreticians representing women, gays, people of color, religions, ethnic groups (both indigenous and traditional) and the environmental object to the ideas which are promoted by national states and propose values-pluralism which is at odds with the social consensus which supports national state bureaucracies.

Opposition to big bureaucracy has been around at least since the Mohists and Daoists opposed the Confucians and Legalists in the 5th century BCE China.  Government expanded in the 19th and 20th centuries in part because of the added legitimacy provided by the rule of law and democratic accountability. The fact that human society approached some sort of limit in government size in the late 20th century does not mean that the need for bureaucratic government has disappeared.  It means that particular government institutions must be reorganized from time to time to assure their productivity and to take on new collective challenges.  The cultural opponents of today’s big liberal governments  don’t see the need to protect the bureaucratic state from reversion into hereditary aristocratic  militarism any more than those in the Marxist, class conflict, tradition.

Science plays and important forming national consensus and supports government regulation.  Science is supposed to be value-free, and being free of values, science- based government regulation has been able to be accepted by groups who were in conflict on issues of value. Liberal government accepts differences in values and expects the political process to involve compromise between differing conceptions of what might be good. The postmodern opposition to liberal democracy is also pluralist but rejects the liberal consensus about property rights and the use of science in state regulation of society.  They wish to put the values which their particular groups support above science when it comes to regulation and government action as well as above the preconceptions of actually existing liberal society. They reject the prospect that their values claims might have to be negotiated away in democratic political wrangling.

Science and technology was important for Marxism for entirely different reasons, chiefly because it was supposed to solve the problem of scarcity.  The revolution was supposed to solve the problem of class conflict which was the origin of values differences in the Marxian model of history. The revolution was to take science out of the private sector and put it in the state where it could be used to benefit the poor. Democratic representative government could not be trusted because it would be manipulated by the economically dominant capitalist elite.

The inclusion of environmentalism within the identity politics category is somewhat controversial.  If you go to the Wikipedia entry for identity politics today, you will not find environmentalism.  Identity politics is associated with the dominance and exploitation of the groups which are organizing socially.  Environmentalists assert that the environment is being exploited, but they are not the environment themselves.  In practice this is a distinction with little significance.  The serious environmentalist will argue that mankind really is part of the environment and that the oppression of the environment and society by the existing liberal elite is part of a single phenomenon. The modern environmental movement had its origins in the same 1960s activism which was associated with the civil rights movement and resistance to the Vietnam War which was associated with the women’s movement, the Latino movement, etc. in the US and various forms of religious, ethnic, anti-colonial, and anti-neocolonial revivals around the world.

Localism of the GMO labeling movement fits with the postmodern interpretation of the movement. The food movement is relatively content to win labeling laws in places with relatively little commercial agriculture because what the leaders want is symbolic victories with which participants can identify. If the biotech industry asserts that lower food prices will help the poor, the leadership of the movement is not deeply interested, because the conflict between the working class and the capitalists is no longer of interest to them. Because the movement wants to believe that commercial agriculture is allied with in involved in a conspiracy with a state bureaucracy established to protect the interests of industry and the authority of government, they persist in discussion of health damage which has not been found. The existence of the movement is built on the assumption that the establishment is responsible for, if not their suffering, at least their frustration with their own lack of participation in government.

The environmental movement has been ambivalent about the role of science.  Some of the early leaders were nominally scientists: Racheal Carson, Barry Commoner, Paul Ehrlich, etc.  Much of the early success of the movement was based on scientific findings.  The core of the movement was white middle class and did not identify to any great extent with other participants in identity politics, although eco-feminist, environmental justice, and anti-globalization movements eventually gave environmentalism a periphery which was more  easily associated with identity politics.  The old movement was frequently against the idea of economic growth and economic progress because it was assumed that growth and progress would be associated with pollution and environmental displacement and degradation, but in practice the activities of the early movement were all about technological and bureaucratic regulatory solutions to environmental problems. Especially by working through the courts, rather than the congress, the movement was able to force the state to support their regulatory systems. That is the reality, but the self-image of the movement is that of persecuted outsiders rather than skillful manipulators of government.

Some cite the observation of the ill effects of modern society on the environment as one of the reasons for the rejection of the modern state and the science associated with it. 3  In contrast Fukuyama argues that the benefits of the State, and liberal democratic control of it, have simply been forgotten.  The threats of decay into a new military elitist society are being neglected.  Benefits of liberal democracy are taken for granted, while costs are assumed to negatively impact the nature of society and the environment. The type of opposition to big government associated with the Tea Party has forgotten that government has not grown.  The practitioners of identity politics and the environmental movement have forgotten that the social component of our economy as represented by the size of the federal and state governments is still as large as it ever was. They see actually existing government as causing social decay because they don’t like the organizations which people belong to and much of what existing government does. The government is still a powerful representation of our society commitment although progressives see it wrongly conceived.

Fukuyama’s treatment of the problems of decay of the state are less well developed than his account of the origins of the modern bureaucratic state and its control with the rule of law and democratic accountability.

He asserts that the values pluralism associated with identity politics is one of the primary threats to the functioning of effective bureaucratic government.  With values pluralism comes government mission creep.  As the objectives of good government are expanded, the ability of the government to deliver is threatened.  If its image of capability and efficacy is threatened, the ability of government to tax is threated.  The descending spiral of failure, expanded objectives combined with reduced expectations and additional resource limitations are a serious threat to good government.

Early in the book Fukuyama tells the story of the creation of the Forest Service in the Teddy Roosevelt administration and of its founder Gifford Pinchot. The Forest Service was a great success at its originally defined purpose of preserving forests for the use future generations.  At the end of the book he describes the problems the Forest Service of today. It is “performing and outmoded mission with the wrong tools.”  It has lost much of the autonomy which it had in the early years because of contradictory mandate[s] “from congress and the courts which cannot be simultaneously fulfilled.”  Decision making is frequently gridlocked and staff morale is low. Much of the problem with the Forest Service is associated with its role in fighting fires.  As Fukuyama puts it: “the problem with scientific management is that even the most qualified scientists will occasionally get things wrong, and sometimes get them wrong in a big way.” The original Forest Service approach to fighting fires proved to increase the damage from fires rather than reducing it. Burning should have been controlled rather than eliminated, but now with people living near forests, it has proven difficult to change direction.  Fire fighting has its own lobby.  In addition the new environmental mission of the Forest Service has drastically reduced the amount of timber being harvested, literally adding fuel to the fires.  The multiplication of objectives has reduced the productivity of the forests that are being managed.  At the same time the bureaucratic staff of the Forest Service has become a lobby for the preservation of the old structure and defense of their budgets.

Fukuyama points out that the size of the US government has not increased over the last 30 years but that mandates given to the government have increased, including reducing child poverty, fighting terrorism, etc.  The frustration in the staff of the government reduces the ability of the government to hire able and knowledgeable people with whom to staff the ideal energetic and efficient organization.

Implications for the Seed Industry and GMO labeling

Mission creep is evident among the issues which matter the most to those of us in the seed business.  The USDA, FDA and EPA are charged with keeping food safe for the public. They are staffed to be able to do this task.  The new agrarian, anti-industrial, food movement would like to see the government get involved in supporting non-industrial food production. They would like to see a labeling law added to the task of the FDA and USDA which would allow customers with a moral objection to business involvement with food to demonstrate their moral rejection of GMOs. To do so adds a task to the role of the FDA and USDA which will accomplish nothing in utilitarian terms. It does not fall within their current food safety mandate.  Such and addition would disrupt the utilitarian philosophy behind food labeling and open the door to other non-utility based labeling.  For example consider labeling requiring disclosure of the ethnicity or the gender identity of the producers: “this food was produced by Native Americans,” “produced by a company owned by members of the LBGT community,” etc. The existing philosophy of food labeling, with certain exceptions for major religions, is that it provides information which is useful for choice.  The standard for utility is that the factor is to be reported must be shown to have a genuine impact on the health of the consumer.  That means scientific proof of impact must exist.  The idea that food choice should reinforce the community identity of the consumer is not included, with the exception of the major religions, where issue of freedom of religious practice come into play.

Although the support of the food industry and the biotech originators is attacked as evidence of the influence of economic interest on the electoral process in cases like the recent rejection of the referendum on GMO labeling in Oregon, the campaign against the law can also be portrayed as support for good impartial liberal government.  It is not possible to win elections in the US with overt opposition to property rights. The movement to reject the patenting of biotechnology because it involves living organisms has not gone anywhere in the US because rights to property are so closely identified with what it means to be a member of American society.  The public just does not identify with the assertion that patenting life is immoral. Individual rights to discriminate against certain kinds of products, like GMOs, have better resonance with the nature of freedom. Fukuyama makes the case that our fundamental civil rights, and the ability to restrict government to operate under democratically chosen laws depends on government’s ability to focus on priority tasks, and periodically to reorganize to better address those tasks.  The campaign against GMO labeling is part of a general effort to keep the US government focused and effective in delivering what citizens want most from it.

Paul Christensen

Christensen Consulting


Seed Notes:

1 Francis Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay:  From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014

2 Grover Norquist

3 Ulrich Beck, ‘World risk society as cosmopolitan society? Ecological questions in a framework of manufactured uncertainties,’ Theory, Culture & Society 13 (4), 1996, 1-32.

Seed Key Words:

history, seed, Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay, GMO labeling, labeling, regulation, liberal democracy, political, agricultural biotechnology, labeling.

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Patronage, Clientelism and the 19th Century History of the American Seed Industry

Francis Fukuyama has recently published the second volume of his history of political development.  The title is Political Order and Political Decay:  From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy. 1  The book is of interest to those attempting to assess the potential of new seed markets in the developing world, but it also mentions interesting 19th century history about the seed sector in the U.S.

Francis Fukuyama, Political Order and  Political Decay

Francis Fukuyama is the historian and sociologist who boldly asked in 1989, at the end of the cold war, whether mankind had reached the end of history. 2  His assertion was that after the fall of the Soviet Union only one sort of government would be considered legitimate, liberal democracy respecting the rule of law. 3 In the year’s since he has sought to look at the roles of administrative authority in a more nuanced ways.  

One of the major points of his two volume history of political development is that the rule of law and democratically accountable government depend on the existence of a strong uncorrupt government.  There is a further expectation that poverty and low incomes are associated with the lack of the rule of law, the lack of democratically accountable government, and the lack of strong and uncorrupted administrative institutions.  There is not a clear or consistent path to getting the combination of rule of law, accountable government, and capable administrations.  The UK and the US got the rule of law and democracy before acquiring a strong and honest administration during the latter half of the 19th century for the former and the progressive era for the later.  Sweden, Prussia and Germany acquired strong professional administrations before their societies democratized.   Argentina was prosperous and liberal through the 1920s, but in the 1930s and 1940s reverted to governments promoting class division and patronage that disrupted democracy and the rule of law, as well as the democratic process.  The Whig history of the U.S. and U.K. is not universal, and democratic constraint of the authoritarian state is not the only path to the modern balance.  

Ancient China, modern Sweden, modern Prussia, modern Japan and some other nations acquired quality administrations (states) under the pressure of military necessity.  In these cases strong professional states came before democratization, and came through the actions of leaders who wished their societies to survive foreign military pressure.  In the case of China, democratization and the acceptance of the rule of law over the state have not yet occurred.  Given that China has persisted with this sort of government for over 2,000 years, Fukuyama would not assert that it is inevitable that it will adopt either democracy or the rule of law. Confucian morality allows Chinese administration to work. The government of Prussia succeeded in modernizing because of cultural factors which were unique to the historical background of Prussia: Calvinism, etc. Other state administrations cannot duplicate those cultural building blocks. Some strong states, including the German heirs of the Prussian state and their Japanese counterparts, got off-track through the adoption of nationalism leading them in to conflict with their neighbors rather than further modernization including democratization.  Depending on the social morality of nationalistic militarily oriented social leaders is tricky and in a world in which international military conflict has been somewhat tamed. It may not be a model for national progress which has much relevance, although national identity is an important part of making a modern nation work because it allows a society to accept a uniform set of laws and a central administration as legitimate.

The other track to a strong modern administration is the track associated with the gradual strengthening of state administration through coalition building and the development of broad based trust in government at the same time that government administration is made worthy of trust.  That track is not easy but seems to be the major path open in developing nations.  Fukuyama has described the problems of getting to liberal democracy. He remains fully convinced that it is the right objective. But he goes out of his way to point out that there is no single path toward that objective.  This perspective evolved from Sam Huntington’s rejection of 1950’s modernization theory. 4

Much of the first volume of his history was taken up with descriptions of the problems of patrimonialism in various societies.  Patrimonialism can be described as government by incompetent aristocrats, but of course those aristocrats may see themselves as warriors who deserve the glory resulting from bravery and honor. Many of them see their aristocracy as noble or may perceive their elite status as derivative of a special relationship with their people. Those outside their circles may not accept their nobility or cultural leadership as legitimate. In the pre-modern world all government was patrimonial.  Describing a modern state bureaucracy as uncorrupt assumes that there is some sort of national utilitarian standard by which administrative action can be said to be beneficial to the public at large. Only when it is possible to choose policy which will help society generally does denial of the seeking of individual benefits from the state make sense.  For Fukuyama corruption means networks of clients who provide support for bosses in administrative power in exchange for benefits from the administration.

Patrimonialism comes naturally to human society.  We naturally favor relatives and friends.  It is nothing new.  Agrarian societies were ruled by military elites from time immemorial.  It is networks of patronage that made this sort of rule possible.  In Europe the usual system was feudalism.  A military monarch made an agreement with a vassal for mutual support. The vassal received territory from which he could extract rents or taxes from local farmers.  The reciprocal obligation of the vassal was to pay taxes and provide military support for the monarch.  In some more centralized authoritarian regimes in Asia it was more typical that the administration would grant the client the right to an income in return for his support. 5 

These patronage networks weaken the ability of the state to provide services like education and health care, because of the resources which they divert. In the case of agriculture they weaken the ability to supply research results and extension services. They can also lead to low expectations on the ability of government.   In more extreme cases, patronage networks can weaken the ability of the state to provide public order, and functioning democracy. But patronage networks can have some positive benefits.  They can be very stable, stationary bandits are always to be preferred to roving bandits. 6  Patrimonialism can allow the administration to reach areas and social groups where the formal bureaucracy is not present and facilitate short term community integration and interaction.  In low trust societies, the trust of a client for his patron may be better than the war of all against all. 

Clientelism and Seed in 19th Century America 

The patronage system which operated in 19th Century America was different than the patronage of the pre-modern world.  Democracy established itself in America long before the United States administration could be large enough to have much of an impact on American society. 7  Fukuyama and others make a distinction between patrimonial patronage and the clientism which existed in democratic America.  Patronage in aristocratic societies was intended to support traditional aristocracies. Modern authoritarians continue to use patronage networks.  The clientelism of the US existed to provide support for 19th century political parties . The Democrats, the Whigs, and the Republican Party which followed the Whigs where all involved.  In most cases, the benefits which individuals expected when they joined a party patronage network were government jobs.  Andrew Jackson had a policy of keeping government jobs simple so that just about anyone would be qualified to perform them.   Educated professional civil servants were largely unknown.   If an educated person had a government job, it was probably not related to his education.  For example Herman Melville, the quintessential American Romantic author was employed as a customs inspector in New York. 

This kind of clientelism is very common in democratic developing countries.  It provides some involvement of the public in government and does not necessarily lead to debilitating corruption, as long as the parties involved do not seize power permanently.  But for this type of clientism to end, there must be a clear separation between politicians and professionals in government. 

In addition to government employment as patronage, in 19th century America there was also patronage involving government services.  This is where clientelism and the seed sector intersect.  The major activity of the 19th century Department of Agriculture was the production, purchase, packaging and distribution of seed.  This activity originated from the involvement of early administrations in the introduction of new crops and varieties from abroad.  American had different climates from the countries where immigrants originated, and the seed which they brought with them was not always appropriate for crop production in their new settlements.  President Thomas Jefferson said “The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture,” and presidents which followed him proceeded to sponsor additions. In 1825 President John Quincy Adams ordered U.S. Consuls to send rare plants and seeds to the State Department. 8 9

Surprisingly some of the first agricultural innovation activity by the U.S. government was performed in the patent office. Patent protection was provided in the constitution and a patent law was passed in 1790.  That law allowed Secretary of State, the Secretary of War, and the Attorney General to issue patents but did not create an institutional bureaucracy to help them do so. There was an early change to remove the Secretary of War from the process.  In 1836 a new patent law was passed which provided for the creation of the official Patent Office. The office was still under the Department of State, but the Secretary of State himself was no longer directly involved in granting patents.  The granting of patents was institutionalized.

The objective stated for patents in the Constitution is the promotion of useful innovation.  The first Commissioner of Patents, Henry L. Ellsworth, took a rather broad interpretation of the promotion of innovation and began the distribution of the seed introductions which were being collected by the Consuls.   In 1860 the Agricultural Section of the Patent Office distributed at least 2.4 million packages of seed. 10 The congressional distribution of seed came to displace more useful federal agricultural functions.

During the 1850s there was a long congressional debate about the need for agricultural research for the U.S.  The Southern states, with more restricted ideas about the scope of federal government, tended to oppose the creation a federal research organization.  During the U.S. Civil War, with the southern opposition absent, Congress created the Department of Agriculture (USDA). In 1862, the Agricultural Section of the Patent Office became the USDA. The major activity of the early USDA was the distribution of seed, and seed distribution would remain a major activity of the Department for the rest of the century.  The amount of evaluation of the material which was distributed increased over time but most of the seed distributed was not really new or innovative.

This seed distribution does not appear exceptional, until one realizes that the process which was used to select who received seed was largely political.  Most of the seed was sent from the Patent Office or USDA to individual congressmen, who in turn sent it on their supporters via the subsidized post office.  The congressmen were free to use the seed produced and purchased by the government and the delivery service paid for by taxpayers to deliver benefits to those who would support them in the next election.  The demand for seed from the administration by the congressmen was demand for patronage benefits which could assure them reelection. 

During the 1880s, seeing the expansion of agricultural research and extension in the UK, France and Germany, there was pressure to elevate the USDA to cabinet status and expand its activities. The idea of an expanded state and an educated professional bureaucracy became more popular. The USDA was elevated cabinet status in 1889 at the end of the first administration of Grover Cleveland (Bourbon Democrat).   In 1890, under the new Republican Benjamin Harrison administration, Edwin Willets, Assistant Secretary of Agriculture, established the policy that all research by the Department would be mission-oriented to a practical objective, and began encouraging employees to develop activities that avoided the patronage oriented seed distribution program. 11 Citizens were beginning to look to government for activities which would promote the common good rather than look to it a source of patronage benefits for individuals.  Additional divisions were created within the USDA which reflected the broadening scope of research activities (Fiber Crops in 1890, Vegetable Pathology in 1890, and Grass Science in 1895). The Pendleton Act which created the professional civil service had been passed in 1883. The machinery was in place to assure that the new government employees were hired on the basis of their technical competence rather than their political connections. The USDA was one of the first government agencies to apply the procedures of the Pendleton Act and hire professional scientific staff. 12

Seed sorting in the USDA Seed Building, 1916

Seed sorting in the USDA Seed Building, Washington, D.C.. This photograph was taken about 1916 (Library of Congress, LC-F82-1730).

Most of the seed which was distributed was vegetable seed and flower seed of well -established varieties from commercial sources.  In 1895 for example the USDA spent $48,830.30 for the purchase of seeds, bulbs, and cuttings from 32 companies. 13 The purchased seed “accounted for most of the 9,901,153 packages of seed that were distributed. The distribution included 8,963,059 packages of 162 varieties of vegetables, 771,780 packages of 73 varieties of flowers, 32,847 packages of 7 varieties of corn, and 18,752 packages of 4 varieties of cotton.” 14 The U.S. government was displacing private business which might otherwise have been involved in seed distribution.  Very little of the material resulted from USDA research.

Mailing seed from the U.S. Capitol, 1916

Mailing seed from Pennsylvania Senator Boies Penrose’s office at the U.S. Capitol. This photograph was taken about 1916 (Library of Congress, LC-F82-3649).

In later years the seed distribution program restricted its activities to the distribution of new varieties.  The USDA itself wanted to go in this direction long before the Congress agreed.  James Wilson had been appointed Secretary of Agriculture by McKinley in 1897. He continued to serve in that capacity under Roosevelt and Taft.  In 1902, with Teddy Roosevelt in office and the progressive era in process, Secretary Wilson thought that he had succeeded in convincing Congress to modify the Seed Distribution Program for the better.  He proposed that under the new program, “common” seed would no longer be distributed.  The USDA would distribute seed of new or little-known varieties commercial varieties, and would focus on n supplying seed of new varieties that it developed and new germplasm that it collected.  He wanted to “Change from producing and distributing seed to producing and distributing knowledge.”  15 Due to continued political pressure, the pace of change was slow, although the objective was understood.  The 1912 the spring distribution included 51 million packets of vegetable seed and 12 million packets of flower seed and commercial seed producers continued to complain about the competition from free seed. 16 The program of congressional seed distribution continued until 1923. “Wilson was able to shift the department from being a seed-distribution agency to a forward looking science-based organization” so that when the Smith-Lever act which established the cooperative extension service in 1914, the Federal government was in a position that it had useful research results which could be passed to the public and had become an institution which was capable of generating more, as well as taking one new roles like the food safety provisions of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. 17   

Seed in the Developing World of Today

Seed distribution had been part of the government activities of many developing nations until the neo-liberal changes in the 1980s and 1990s led many nations to privatize or discontinue their national seed production programs.  The green revolution had included a lot of public seed production in the distribution of the rice and wheat varieties which were most successful.  Some supporters of large active governments say that the importance of seed distribution in 19th century America indicates that those Americans recommending that developing world markets stay out of the seed business are avoiding policies which were successful in their own country.  The same is said of government promotion of industry and protectionist tariffs, both of which were accepted by the same 19th century Whig and Republican governments which were supporters of free seed for congressional contacts. The Republican supporters of the use of patronage and the “spoils system” were known as the Stalwart Republicans. 18

The USDA variety introduction programs had some major successes, like the introduction of orange production in California, but the most of the growth of America as an agricultural production powerhouse is associated with the extension of the railroads into the Midwest and Great Plains and technology like John Deere’s steel mold board plough that allowed the efficient use of labor in agricultural production.  Yields were relatively static until after WWII.  The vegetable seeds which were distributed by congress had little to do with the success of 19th century American agriculture.  As Mr. Willits observed in 1890, the seed distribution program was a waste of money which could have been spent more productively elsewhere in government, including in plant breeding for crops which had commercial prospects and many other activities.

There can be some solid reasons for public involvement in seed production.  The best one is probably the resolution of information asymmetries.  When government has solid information that they have developed a better variety, creating a supply may solve problems about the creation of demand.  Older seed varieties sometimes behave as public goods, because many people can produce in the absence of plant breeders’ rights. The government can take the option of stepping in to produce when other parties lack incentives to do so.  Developing countries without plant breeders’ ownership rights can argue that it is easier to treat seed as a public good than create a functioning rights system.  But it is far better to argue these issues on their merits than to argue that the United States, a successful agricultural country, once had a large free seed program and therefore other developing countries should also create free seed programs.

Governments in Africa and other developing countries are in need of better, stronger, more competent and professional administrations. Many democratic developing countries face the challenge of getting beyond clientism in government.  They should consider themselves lucky to have gotten beyond the patrimonialism of traditional aristocratic or authoritarian government, but at the same time they should be humble enough to admit that among nations, from time to time, an authoritarian leader will be able to create a modern and just government bureaucracy in the manner of the previous generation in South Korea or Singapore, or 18th century Sweden or Prussia.  It can be done with cultural constraint on the behavior of officials in the administration, rather than government democratic accountability and the rule of law, but it is not easy or likely to succeed without the right starting point. Leaders are faced with working with the cultures they are given.  The charismatic or the powerful can make changes for the better, or worse, but they are not entirely free to choose the changes which will succeed. Government programs giving out free seed in poor countries are likely to increase the popularity and image of the government with the recipients. The American experience indicates that it is hard to do this without creating either the reality or perception of corruption in government.  The best that can be said for the congressional free seed distribution program of the 1800s is that all the political parties were involved and none were able to use the distraction of free seed to permanently displace the others.  

Paul Christensen

Christensen Consulting


Seed Notes:

1   Francis Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay:  From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014

2 Francis Fukuyama, "The End of History?", The National Interest, Summer 1989.

3 The rule of law implies the willingness of leaders of the state to accept legal constraint.  It is distinct from the rule by law in which the rest of society is law abiding but the leaders of the state may not be.

4 Typified by Walt Rostow’s The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960. Rostow assumes a verison of Whig history in which economy growth is assumed to create demands for political accountability. 

5 The technical term is “prebend,” but it is not one that I have run across frequently.  The distinction between ownership of a fief and a right to an income is significant because it leaves ownership and control with the state and limits the ability of the aristocracy to moderate the actions of the monarchy. 

6 Mancur Olson

7 With the exception of the Civil War.

8 R.J. Griesbach, 150 Years of Research at the United States Department of Agriculture: Plant Introduction and Breeding, ARS, 2013

9 One should keep in mind that the scope of work of the early State Department included domestic as well as foreign affairs activities. 

10 J.R. Kloppenburg,. First Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology. Cambridge University Press, 1988.

11 E. Willets, Report of the Secretary of Agriculture, 1890, p. 59–73.

12 Carpenter, Forging a Bureaucratic Autonomy. Pps. 212-216.

13 Harnden, E.S. Report of the Special Agent for the purchase of seeds. Report of the Secretary of Agriculture, 1895. .p. 213.

14 Fagan, M.E. 1895. Report of the Chief of the Seed Division. Report of the Secretary of Agriculture for the Year 1895, pp. 202, 208. Quote from Fagan, M.E. 1895. Report of the Chief of the Seed Division. Report of the Secretary of Agriculture for the Year 1895, pp. 202, 208.

15 Wilson, J. 1902. Report of the Secretary of Agriculture, p. 20.

16 Ebel, M.C. 1912. The Congressional free seed distribution. Gardeners Chronicle of America 16:473–474. Available at Google Books. 

17 Francis Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay:  From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014. Pps. 177-178.

18 They were opposed by Republican “Half-breeds,” “Mugwumps,” and progressives. The Southern Democrats were also supporters of the spoils system.


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