Rearranging Chairs on Farmhouse Porch

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Mark Bittman had a column on the NYTimes online “Opinionator” blog yesterday on farm subsidies. He included a fairly (but not completely) thorough list of what is wrong with farm subsidies in America, but he ultimately comes down on the side of “fixing” farm subsidies rather than ending them altogether.

Bittman acknowledges that the “temporary” programs intended to offset the worst effects of the Great Depression have morphed into the bloated, corrupt, regressive and damaging programs we see today, and yet he still has enough faith in government to advocate new programs. He would like to see farm subsidies reformed to (a) encourage farmers to grow foods that Bittman determines we need more of;  (b) re-size American farms to what he thinks are the appropriate size; (c) help more people to go into farming; (d) prevent farmland from being converted into higher-value development; and (e) allow us to spend more money on programs he thinks more worthy (high-speed rail, for example).

Some of the money for the new farm programs would come from the budget, primarily from the so-called “direct payments” that flow to farmers and landowners based on past production of certain crops, but Bittman seems attracted to the idea of new taxes on food processors (which, you can be sure, would be passed on to consumers). He alleges the food companies are the main beneficiaries of farm subsidies, even as he admits that consumers have benefitted from lower prices of subsidized commodities. 

The solution to a lot of the problems caused by farm subsidies, however, lies not in changing the direction of the programs. Perhaps unwittingly, Bittman himself has pointed to the way out:

The subsidy-suckers don’t grow the fresh fruits and vegetables that should be dominating our diet. Indeed, if all Americans decided to actually eat the five servings a day of fruits and vegetables that are recommended, they would discover that American agriculture isn’t set up to meet that need. They grow what they’re paid to grow: corn, soy, wheat, cotton and rice.

While I agree that American farmers are producing far more for government programs than they are the demands of the market, the solution is to get rid of the farm subsidies. If Americans decide to eat more fruit and vegetables, you can be sure that farmers here or abroad (and it does not matter which) will be happy to provide them.  The solution lies not in tinkering with the program in the hope that finally, this time, bureaucrats in Washington will get it right, but in freeing the farmers from government interference totally, and letting the market decide which foods are grown.

See this Cato essay for more on farm subsidies.