Foyle’s War: Sunflower

The Foyle’s War television series is one of the most satisfying, electrifying shows ever to have been shown to a wide audience. If you have not yet seen it, you will be forever grateful to me for introducing it to you. It takes place during and after World War II, from the perspective of a British policeman, who later in the series becomes an MI5 intelligence officer. The Sunflower episode is as dramatic and riveting as any other; however, this is the rare chapter in this series in which the writers reveal their economic illiteracy.

The main plot here concerns Mr. Foyle tasked with protecting an evil Nazi officer who is of great help to the United Kingdom government in the early days of the cold war against the USSR. But it is the sub plot that interests us in terms of the dismal science. An English landowner has been cheated out of his land by a Minister in the Labor Government. The time is circa 1945 or 1946 when the British are still reeling from all sort of difficulties stemming from the recent bombings. Pretty much everything is in short supply– certainly food, clothing, housing and many other necessities.

One thousand acres of prime farmland are at stake. The Labor Minister, from the best motives we are led to believe, wants to keep this territory from its rightful owner. He does so because he maintains that the owner is a profiteer who wants to develop housing on this property, when there is a crying need for food. Our hero, Adam, the husband of the female lead in the series, is a newly elected Member of Parliament who forces this Minister to resign, given the fraud and violence he has perpetrated upon the property owner. Yet even Adam buys into the notion that the government knows best how resources should be allocated, and that yes, this land would far better be retained for farming than housing development. He stuck, however, to his honesty principles, even though, he thought, this would not be in the interests of the British economy.

Both actors, and certainly the writers of this episode, misunderstood the economics of the situation. If profits could indeed be maximized by development, this is an excellent indication that the need for housing was greater than that for food. If the developer can “profiteer” from so doing, while earning only a modest return from agriculture, this is the market’s way of indicating the relative importance of the two needs.

Profit, rather than a dirty word, is the free enterprise system’s way of rationally allocating resource. Suppose that the desire for peas and carrots on the part of the populace was 50% for each, but that right now, the proportion of the two items in the stores was 90% of the former, 10% of the latter. Namely, there is now a surfeit of peas, and a shortage of carrots. Which product do you think, gentle reader, would garner more profits for the supplier? Go to the head of the class if your answer was carrots. Yes, this would be the market’s way of guiding entrepreneurs into reallocating their efforts in the direction of promoting consumer satisfaction. They would be led by Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” to promote economic welfare thanks to the operation of profit.

Much the same situation prevailed in this Foyle’s War episode. There were more profits to be made in housing than in agriculture.  This demonstrates that fulfilling the former need was more important than the latter. Yet, the Labor Minister was willing to fraudulently override this profit market signal, supposedly for the benefit of the public. The writers of this episode can be awarded an A+ for drama and keeping us at the edge of our seats; unfortunately, they deserve an F for their economic understanding.

Walter E. Block is Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair and Professor of Economics at Loyola University New Orleans and is co-author of An Austro-Libertarian Critique of Public Choice (with Thomas DiLorenzo).