The parable of the Scottish Banana Burners

Once upon a time the Scottish government was short of money. They put a tariff on the import of bananas. Why bananas? No-one can survive the bitter cold of the Scottish summer without the yellow smile, so consumption would not fall. Also, bananas do not grow in Scotland, so nobody could dodge the import duty by buying locally grown bananas

As the Scottish government grew, in scope and in expense, so did the banana tariff that funded it. Eventually, highlanders build greenhouses, heated by burning North Sea oil, and grew bananas in the highlands. Tax revenues collapsed, and the government had to introduce new taxes in addition to the tariff on the import of bananas

The sneaky tax avoiders who burned heating oil to grow bananas in heated green houses were called Banana Burners even though everybody knew that it was heating oil that they burned, not bananas. The phrase chimed well with the destructiveness of the industry, for Banana Burners were poorly paid, even though bananas were very expensive. The money raised through the high price of bananas went up in smoke when the heating oil was burned.

After thirty years, a new generation of politicians took power, and noticed that Banana burning was economic madness. Far better to import bananas from a warm country where they grew without needing to burn anything for heat. They wanted to repeal the Banana Tariff and let market forces work.

The Banana Burners were horrified. They would lose their jobs. And the bankers were horrified, they would lose their investments in tall, heated green houses. Solidly built expensive greenhouses that withstood the winds of the Scottish winter.

The political battle over the reform of banana tariffs raged. Reformers read their Gordon Tullock and their Mancur Olson. In a democracy, concentrated interests beat diffuse interests. The general public wanted cheaper bananas, but bananas were only part of their grocery bill, and their grocery bill was only part of the total cost of living, and anyway, lots of other people ate bananas, why couldn't they do the hard work of campaigning for cheaper bananas. For the Banana Burners, the industry was the whole of their wage check, and the whole of the skills they had to earn a living. They fought like tigers to keep the tariff

And they memed like tigers, shrugging off the pejorative term Banana Burning and rebranding the tariff Protection because it protected their jobs from foreign competition. Eventually the Protectionist won, because, well, who doesn't want their job protected from foreign competition?

Parables should have a moral. Perhaps three. The first is the standard economists story of the importance of free trade. Banana Burning is indeed economic madness, but once a country goes down this path, it is hard to turn back. The second is the importance of the meme war. Call it banana burning and the destructiveness is in the name. Call it protectionism and the feel good factor is in the name. The third moral is that frailness of unqualified, universal suffrage democracy. The meme war is too important, because ordinary voters treat names as True Names, that tell them how to vote.