Farmers, farms and the GOP’s brand of client politics
Let me start with some background. My real problem with the Democratic Party is that a large portion of its officeholders are concerned with having the government give unearned money and special privileges to people who put them into office. Many of its key efforts — “green” jobs (handouts to a few crony capitalists and certain unions), social programs (larger entitlement-right benefits for everyone), health care (middle-class subsidies that make more people reliant on the government), and taxes (higher rates for the other party’s voters) — the Democratic Party’s policies involve using the government to give things to favored groups.
I like to think that my party is different. It was born in opposition to an economically efficient but terribly immoral system of slave labor and continues to lead crusades against modern evils like human trafficking and abortion. It helped improve the quality of bona fide public goods like national defense and the interstate highway system while casting a jaundiced eye toward expansions of government in other realms.
But my recent detour into farm policy has made me realize how deeply many members of the GOP from rural areas surrender any semblance of principle when it comes to serving the mostly conservative men and women who grow food and fiber.
An evolving debate over the insurance provisions of the Farm Bill now moving forward in the U.S. House provides a good case in point. Essentially, the expensive (almost $90 billion over the next decade), government-controlled crop insurance program is almost certain to be expanded a great deal in order to “make up” to farmers for the elimination of some other, less expensive subsidies. The program, which protects against “market fluctuations” as well as actual losses from weather and drought is, overall, is mostly a way of guaranteeing profits to farmers, rather than transferring risk and planning for contingencies, the way one does with homeowners and auto insurance.
Hardly anybody in either party has bothered to ask if farmers, who have incomes above the national average, really need any extra help at all. And that’s the first problem: Republicans should be on the front lines demanding that people with above-average incomes get few or no handouts from the government. But the problems go even deeper. Plenty of people, mostly Republicans, object to the idea that the crop insurance program include even minimal underwriting standards so that the program doesn’t encourage cultivating the areas most likely to erode.
This is simple common sense and overwhelmingly supported by farmer-run soil conservation districts. Since erosion of land has negative consequences for the country as a whole (and isn’t good long-term business practice anyway) there are plenty of reasons to avoid it. But when the government starts handing out insurance for highly erodible land, more planting will take place and the government will have to make more handouts. Furthermore, since erosion can make land impossible to grow on, the aggregate consequence may well be to place more farmers in a position where they legitimately need government help of some sort. It’s the type of cycle of dependency that many Republicans draw attention to in programs intended to help the poor. A program like this that benefited Democratic-leaning groups would, rightly, be the grist for Tea Party rallies across the country.
There’s no reason that any Republican or, indeed, any right-thinking politician should support gutted crop insurance underwriting standards, or any of dozens of other absurd farm programs. But so far, the Republican caucus as a whole has not mounted much of an attack at all on the programs (although some individual members have.) Sure, most of the people who benefit from these subsidies will pull the R lever in November. But that’s no reason to throw free markets — and principles — out the window.