The free market lets the best come out on top
Not a very good headline at all. It implies plastic replacing oil, when actually the article is about Cargill Inc. converting raw corn (instead of petroleum) into plastic. That's the beauty of the free market: if a popular commodity becomes too expensive, substitutes that were previously too expensive will become practical.
The Energy Department should stay completely out of this, however. It should scrap any of these goals, like "25% of chemical manufacturing to an agricultural base by 2030." These goals invariably necessitate subsidies and/or specialized tax breaks to promote new technology. Let the free market work its magic. I've said a few times, even just yesterday, how Hayek reminded us that knowledge is dispersed throughout society. It's impossible for a relative few government bureaucrats to know how society will change over 25 years; how can they predict all the market shifts and technological advancements? Corn-to-plastic could be completely obsolete by then.
Just 25 years ago, a VCR was a luxury item that people still bought on payments. Today, even low-income families can save a few dollars a week for a few months, then pay cash for a DVD player. How would things have developed if the Department of Commerce decided, "VCRs are the way to go, and we should subsidize them so that by the year 2000, every family that wants one can afford one"? Simply, future competitors like laser discs and DVDs would have been too costly to develop, because VCRs would always have a head start.
Imagine how the computer industry would be today if, instead of letting competition shape things, the Department of Commerce decided in 1977 to promote the Apple II. Again, competitors would have found it too expensive to develop rival technologies. Apple would have also found it very comfortable to keep producing Apple IIs, so curiously enough, they'd have found it too expensive to compete against themselves by developing new technology.
The best solution is the free market and its raw competition. If converting corn into plastic is practical and efficient, entrepreneurs like Cargill Inc. will seize upon it. Meanwhile, those who doubt the potential can rely on petroleum, or seek their own substitute technology.