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The farm bill vote gives credence to Democrats’ favorite ‘straw-man’ argument

by Matt Mitchell on July 24, 2013

in Government-Granted Privilege

“Republicans favor tax cuts because they want to give money to rich people.”

I’ve heard this argument, in various forms, for years. And I’ve always considered it one of the worst straw-men arguments in politics (right up there with “Democrats oppose foreign wars because they are anti-American”).

For one thing, there are plenty of good reasons for cutting taxes that do not rest on a desire to give money to rich people. Moreover, it’s a rather Orwellian twist of the English language to say that refraining from taking as much from high-earners is equivalent to handing them money taken from others. More fundamentally, though, I’ve always found it hard to believe that any serious person—Democrat or Republican—actually wants to transfer resources from middle and low-income taxpayers to upper-income taxpayers. This wouldn’t be justified on either efficiency grounds or on any standard theory of social justice.

Then came the July 11 House vote on the Farm Bill.

As I noted in my last post, U.S. Farm Policies—namely subsidies, price floors, and barriers to trade—are roundly opposed by economists of almost all stripes. The reason is that subsidies, price floors, and barriers to trade do exactly what the straw-man argument claims Republicans want to do: they transfer resources from middle-income consumers and taxpayers to upper-income farmers and landowners.

For years the issue has been clouded by the strange combination of food stamps and farm subsidies in a single “farm bill.” As Veronique explained a few weeks ago, this facilitated a logroll:

In their famous book published in 1962, “The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy,” Noble Prize Winner James Buchanan and his co-author Gordon Tullock identified this behavior as logrolling — an agreement between two or more lawmakers to support each other’s bill.

Normally, they wouldn’t support the other’s bill if it weren’t for the support of their own bill. The main consequence of this quid pro quo is more government spending across the board and in this particular case; more farms subsidies and more food stamps spending.

Then, on July 11, a funny thing happened. The Republican leadership split up the two portions of the farm bill and—shockingly, to me at least—put the farm subsidy portion of the bill up for a vote without any amendments.

Then, without the support of a single Democrat, 216 House Republicans voted to use government subsidies, price floors, and barriers to trade to transfer resources from middle income consumers and taxpayers to upper-income farmers and landowners.

I’m not sure what their motivations were, but the vote certainly makes it seem as though the Republicans in Congress who voted for it want to give money to rich people.

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