The Case for Outrage
The Farm Fiasco, by James Bovard, San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies Press, 362 pages, $18.95
Had Lewis Carroll been a modern public policy analyst instead of a novelist, he might have written this book and titled it Uncle Sam in Farmland, for the absurdities catalogued here in connection with federal farm policy rival any of those Alice confronted when she entered Wonderland. Six decades of political manipulation of agriculture leave us with a "brain-dead federal policy" overseen by a "zombie" government agency—the U.S. Department of Agriculture—and a collection of demagogic congresspeople who fabricate and distort facts in their shameless pandering to the farm vote.
Contradictions are embedded in farm programs. Billions of dollars have been spent on soil conservation even as other USDA programs encourage land erosion and other environmental abuses. Millions have been spent subsidizing tobacco even as other federal agencies spend millions more to warn us against smoking it. While the USDA was paying some farmers nearly $1 billion to reduce dairy production, the Farmers Home Administration was lending millions to other farmers so they could increase dairy production. Subsidized federal irrigation water goes to encourage orange growers to harvest a crop that USDA regulations periodically decree must be destroyed rather than marketed, to keep prices artificially high.
Consumers who are taxpayers get gouged twice or more in a variety of creative ways. The USDA buys surplus butter from American dairy farmers at $3,000 a ton and sells it overseas for $1,000 a ton; it prohibits powdered milk from being sold for less than fluid milk, costing consumers up to 30 cents a gallon; it keeps domestic sugar prices up to three times higher than world prices, and then taxpayers are forced to dump foreign aid into sugar-producing countries such as Jamaica which are hurt by the policy. For those with expensive tastes, a USDA program subsidizing producers of mohair—the fleece of Angora goats used in sweaters—typically gives wool herders more in tax handouts than they receive in sales, even as costs to consumers are kept high.
To explain how agriculture came to be the most politically regulated sector of our national economy, James Bovard provides a short history lesson revealing that many New Deal architects of federal agricultural policy—the fathers of its current failure—took inspiration, if not ideas, directly from the Soviet economic model of centralized control. Agriculture Secretary Henry Wallace and his ideological brethren actually appealed to President Roosevelt for a "farm dictator" to solve a crisis brought on in part by the controls of the Hoover administration's Farm Board, which wrecked agricultural export markets.
Since the New Deal era, farm programs have been designed to keep both crop prices and the number of full-time farmers as high as possible. To this end controls were kept in place to manipulate prices and production, even using the specter of imprisonment to keep farmers in line. During 1955–56 the USDA actually arrested or sued 1,500 farmers for growing more wheat than Congress had authorized.
Technological and management innovations have combined with other factors in this century to produce a gradual but steady decline in crop prices, prompting politicians to twist this evidence of market success into a perception of failure to justify intervention in a continual effort to prop up the farm-welfare system. In 1974 and again in 1981 the U.S. farm economy neared free-market status as various subsidy programs expired or were pared back. But in each year the president and Congress went on a vote-buying binge, pushing subsidies in 1981 from $3 billion to nearly $26 billion annually.
In 1964 the average income of farm families began to pass that of the average American nonfarm family, and the gap has widened every year since. The notion that farmers are relatively worse off than other Americans is one of seven myths of farm policy that Bovard shatters. He reveals how the numbers of farm bankruptcies have been exaggerated for political gain and how it is the rich farmers, not the small family operators, who benefit most from the misplaced compassion of Congress.
Seven crop subsidy programs are examined in detail—sugar, wool, peanuts, tobacco, honey, cotton, and rice—showing the extent to which each fleeces consumers and taxpayers while enriching a few producers. Sugar subsidies go to about 11,000 farmers, for instance, but 11 processors receive nearly half of the benefits. On average the sugar program costs every American family $45 a year.
Questions of morality must be dealt with, since farm programs are so often defended on moral grounds. Either crop surpluses mean a society that can't absorb them is immoral, as some farm state congressmen have audaciously argued, or we owe farmers a guaranteed income because, as House Agriculture Committee Chairman Kika de la Garza has declared, "one farmer on the land is worth more than anything else we could do."
That farmers are the only occupational group entitled to federal handouts by law becomes a fairness issue that Bovard uses to raise more compelling moral arguments of his own. Do farmers have a moral right to use government to keep food prices artificially high? Is it moral to force taxpayers to pay some farmers to idle their land and stop working? Can it be fair to subsidize cotton, rice, wheat, corn, dairy, and sugar farmers but not soybean farmers, potato farmers, or farmers who raise most of the other 400 crops produced in America?
As one might expect, Bovard advocates abolishing crop subsidy programs, all supply controls, and all agricultural credit subsidies to solve the problems caused by government intervention. Yet, as overwhelming a case as he makes, we are left with a stark political reality: Federal agricultural tampering, no matter how wasteful, inefficient, and contradictory, helps reelect incumbent politicians. Dairy lobbies alone give members of Congress about $1 million in campaign contributions for every $1 billion worth of subsidies these lawmakers return to dairy farmers.
Over the past few years Bovard, in a series of newspaper and magazine articles, has contributed more than anyone to the public's understanding of our farm program madness. With this book, he presents the ultimate Everyman's defense of a free market in agriculture. But it remains for others to fashion a strategy that will take the fairness issues and fuse together a coalition of taxpayers, consumer groups, and unsubsidized agricultural producers. Without that political counterweight, this book, as have so many others on so many other public policy questions, can do little more than give those of us who read and admire it another dose of helpless outrage.
Randy Fitzgerald is a staff writer at Reader's Digest.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Case for Outrage".