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The farm bill: a lesson in government failure

As a consumer and as a taxpayer, the farm bill is a monstrosity. But as someone who teaches public finance and public choice economics, it is a great teaching tool.

Want to explain the concept of dead-weight loss [1]? The farm bill’s insurance subsidies are a perfect illustration of the concept. They transfer resources from taxpayers to farm producers; but taxpayers lose more than producers gain.

Want to illustrate the folly of price controls [2]? Sugar supports which force Americans to pay twice [3] what global consumers pay are a fine illustration.

Want to explain Gordon Tullock’s transitional gains trap [4]? Walk your students through the connection between subsidies and land prices [5]: much of the value of the subsidy is “capitalized” into the price of farmland, meaning that new farmers have to pay exorbitant prices to buy an asset that entitles them to subsidies. This means new farmers are no better off as a result of the subsidies. As David Friedman puts it, “the government can’t even give anything away.” The only ones to gain are those who owned the land when the laws were created. But those who paid for the land with the expectation that it would entitle them to subsidies would howl if politicians tried to do right by consumers and taxpayers and get rid of the privileges.

Want to illustrate Mancur Olson’s theory of interest group formation [6]? Look no further than sugar loans. Taxpayers loan about $1.1 billion to producers every year. Spread among 313 million of us, that is a cost of about $3.50 per taxpayer. And who benefits? Last year just three (!) firms received the bulk [7] of these subsidies, each benefiting to the tune of $200 million. As Olson taught us long ago, the numerous and diffused losers face a significant obstacle in organizing in opposition to this while the small and concentrated winners have every incentive to get organized in support.

Want to show how a “legislative logroll [8]” works? Explain to your students that members representing dairy and peanut interests are statistically significantly [9] likely to vote in the interests of peanut farmers and vice versa.

Want to explain Bruce Yandle’s bootlegger and Baptist [10] theory of regulation? Note that catfish farmers [11] want inspection of “foreign” catfish in the name of safety (the Baptist rationale) when the real reason for supporting additional inspections is self-interested protectionism (the bootlegger motivation).

This week’s lesson is on the power of agenda setters [12] to block even modest reforms. Buried in the dross of privileges to wealthy farmers, both the Senate and the House versions of the bill contained a small glimmer of reform. Both included language capping the amount of subsidies that farmers and their spouses receive at “only” $250,000 per year. Right now, House and Senate conferees are working to reconcile the two versions of the Farm Bill passed this summer. And according to the latest [13] reports [14], they plan to strip these modest reforms that were agreed to by both [15] chambers [16].

Unfortunately, kids, this is how modern democracy works.