Friday, July 12, 2013

The farm bill and Big Government Conservatism

By Frank Moraes 

A lot of people wonder what a liberal like Dean Baker means when he writes a book like The End of Loser Liberalism. He means a lot, of course, and you should read it because that link provides the book in various electronic formats that are free. But mostly what he means is that the whole paradigm that we have of liberals being for big government and conservatives being for small government is just dead wrong. I write about this a lot myself, but I'm not sure that I didn't originally get the idea from him. The fact is that conservatives are just for a different kind of big government. Most of the time, it is even bigger than the government liberals want. What's more, it is infinitely more pernicious. My favorite example is that liberals want to spend money on libraries. No one ever lost their liberty because of public libraries. Yes, I know: conservatives think that taxation is theft, but that doesn't stop them from taxing for whatever it is they want. And the things they want to tax for really are associated with the loss of liberty: armies, spying, vaginal probes.

Yesterday, we had as clear an example of this divide as we will ever have. The farm bill is normally a very popular thing. Rural representatives like it because it gives money and price supports to farmers; urban representatives like it because it gives food (mostly in the form of food stamps or SNAP) to poor people. But when the House tried to pass a farm bill last month, it failed. Democrats didn't like it because it made savage cuts to SNAP. The most conservative Republicans didn't like it because it didn't cut SNAP enough. So in order to get a farm bill passed, the House Republicans split the farm bill in half: part for farms and part for SNAP. And they passed the "farm only" bill and said they would get to the "SNAP only" bill later.

Note what's going on. The Republicans have no trouble with spending taxpayer money. They just don't want it to go to the poor. It is just fine if it goes to farmers. This is interesting, because as economist Vincent H. Smith has shown farmers are richer than Americans on average, and getting more so. And in the past, this is what people hated about the farm bill. It wasn't that poor families were getting nutritional support or that kids were getting hot lunches at school. Now the Republican Party is saying very clearly that all that really matters is that tax dollars go to people they see as authentic rather than those who might actually need it.

There is another part of it. The farm bill sets price floors on goods. That is a big way that it helps farmers. This means that everyone has to pay more for food than they would in a free market. Those hit worst by these price floors are the poor. Thus, SNAP is a logical way to offset that unfair burden (although it does far more than that). As you can see from this, it has nothing to do with conservatives being in favor of free markets. Not only are conservatives giving direct payments middle class and much more wealthy farmers, they are providing a huge distortion to the market with price supports.

The real question is why even liberals continue to believe that they are for big government and conservatives are not. I think this stems largely from conservative mythology. They so believe that liberalism is a form of socialism and conservatism is a form of libertarianism, that they have themselves convinced that they really are for small government. History tells a different story with the two coming out of exactly the same traditions. And thus, it isn't surprising that they act much the same. And there is also the question of how politics works. People get political power by providing their constituencies things they want. There is no consistency that wants the government to disappear. But there are constituencies that believe the only correct function for government is to give stuff to them alone. And that's how we get today's logic: farmer gooood! Poor people baaad! 

(Cross-posted at Frankly Curious.)

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