Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe stood with two agriculture secretaries under overcast skies at the State Fair a few days ago to proudly announce exciting new ways they planned to give other people's money to special interests.
That's not quite how they put it themselves. McAuliffe, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Todd Haymore were announcing $1.2 million in grants to support local and organic food and farmers' markets. The grants are just part of a $52 million nationwide effort about which you should be absolutely thrilled—if you belong to the special interests getting the money or to the administrations doling it out.
On the off-chance you are not among those happy bands, though, you might find reasons for skepticism. You could start with the officials' statements, which consist of pablum that is, simultaneously, soporific and sinister. "The awards announced today," McAuliffe said, would "help to achieve my goal of building a new Virginia economy through supporting local farmers and entrepreneurs. . . . These programs are smart, targeted investments needed to position our economy for new opportunities" yadda yadda yadda.
Whoa. Where is it written that a governor's job is to build a new economy? Who this side of Chairman Mao believes it's a good idea to let politicians decide how economic resources should be allocated? And even if you do believe that, what makes McAuliffe—whose business ventures GreenTech Automotive and Franklin Pellets have not exactly caught fire—think he is remotely qualified for such a task?
Furthermore, are these programs (e.g., the Farmers Market Promotion Program) truly "smart"—or, for that matter, "needed"? Well, Vilsack says "consumers are increasingly demanding more local and organic options." They are? If so, then surely farmers can meet those demands without help from Uncle Sam. And indeed, farmers are doing just that: "The local food movement has been one of the fastest growing segments of" agriculture, reports The New York Times: "Farmers' markets are proliferating around the country, increasing 76 percent . . . since 2008." So why do we need a federal program to promote farmers' markets?
We don't. But such programs were included in the farm bill, which was—like every other farm bill before it—a grotesquerie of handouts, subsidies, and special favors. The most recent iteration made some marginal improvements, such as doing away with certain price-support programs. But it replaced them with heavily subsidized crop insurance, about whose follies a great deal already has been written.
And naturally, the farm bill included lots of money for entities such as (not making this up) the National Sheep Industry Improvement Center. And the National Clean Plant Network, which encourages farmers not to grow diseased crops (as if they would do so otherwise). And the Commodity Wood Energy Program, which encourages the burning of wood for heat at "schools, town halls, libraries and other public buildings." Nothing says "homey" like a fire at the local library!
Now we have programs to support organic farms and farmers' markets. These include not only the programs mentioned above but also the Organic Research and Extension Initiative, which will spend millions this year on grants to help organic-food producers do what they would do anyway: grow and market organic food. Thanks to the extension initiative, though, they can do some of it on somebody else's dime.
Defenders of those programs will point out, correctly, that small farms face fierce competition from corporate agribusiness. For this we can thank … the federal government's farm policy, which for decades has conferred special advantages on large factory-farming operations, rendered small farmers ineligible for similar benefits, and driven up the cost of farm acreage, forcing family farmers to sell their plots to agribusiness giants. And the answer to all that federal intervention is yet more federal intervention?
The grants announced the other day also were meant to improve "food availability." Have any of the politicians been in a grocery store lately? Food in America is not exactly scarce.
But assume for a moment that it is. Before starting a new program to fix that problem, would it not be wise to end an old program that caused it? Since 1995 the federal government has paid farmers more than $31 billion not to farm. As one USDA news release put it last year, "in exchange for a yearly rental payment … on contracts ranging from 10 to 15 years, farmers and ranchers … agree to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production." That announcement concerned contracts affecting 26.8 million acres. In short, Washington pays some farmers to reduce food availability, and other farmers to increase it.
The dynamics of federal agricultural policy mimic the dynamics of federal energy policy: Because Washington has ladled out huge subsidies to fossil fuels, goes the argument, it must turn around and ladle out yet more subsidies to wind, solar, and other renewables. The result is that the government ends up subsidizing big farms – and small ones, too; fossil fuels—and the fuels that compete against them. With a profusion of subsidies going to every interest imaginable, the redistributionary churn becomes so muddled it is impossible to know who is, on balance, better or worse off because of it.
Except in two cases. Politicians gain enormously, since they win gratitude and support by handing out the goodies someone else paid for. The taxpayers, meanwhile, lose enormously, since they're stuck picking up the tab. These days, that's the most thankless job in America.