Seventy-four years ago, a gang of unscrupulous villains got together and devised an audacious plan to fleece the American people on an unprecedented scale. They called their plan, officially, “An act to relieve the existing national economic emergency by increasing agricultural purchasing power, to raise revenue for extraordinary expenses incurred by reason of such emergency, to provide emergency relief with respect to agricultural indebtedness, to provide for the orderly liquidation of joint-stock land banks, and for other purposes.” The “other purposes” of this Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 certainly included the enrichment of many of the wealthiest farmers in the country at the expense of every American who had the temerity to wear clothes, eat food, and use any good or service produced with the aid of feed and fiber — in short, at everyone’s expense.
The long title of the congressional act makes clear that its supporters intended to justify it as an emergency measure. Yet, although the agricultural crisis associated with the Great Depression ended in the 1940s, the purported agricultural emergency somehow became permanent, at least insofar as the agribusiness lobbies and their all-too-pliant friends in Congress were concerned. As historian Broadus Mitchell wrote, “Though framers of the act, to overcome congressional objections, presented it as an emergency measure, there is abundant evidence that all along they intended it to be the basis of long-time policy.”
In 1936, the Supreme Court struck down the original Agricultural Adjustment Act, but Congress immediately reenacted the bulk of it, shaving its edges to squeeze it past the Court. As events unfolded, these changes proved unnecessary because after 1937 the Supreme Court, composed for the most part of New Dealers and their spiritual descendants, gave carte blanche to virtually every form of special-interest predation the Congress in its wisdom might concoct. Thus, the American people have been saddled ever since 1933 with a form of robbery so blatant that it would make Jesse James blush.
I recall these historical events for the light they shed on today’s news — and as part of a lesson about the nearly unadulterated folly of congressional “emergency measures.” According to a June 20, 2007, Washington Post report by Dan Morgan, “a House panel voted unanimously yesterday to extend for five years the current system of payments to farmers and rejected a series of proposed changes.” Rest assured that the proposed changes were minor ones, posing scant threat to continuation of the overall farm-related grand larceny that Congress undoubtedly will approve. Although this story surely fits under the rubric of “dog bites man,” the mind still staggers under the force of the impudent rhetoric employed by the crooks who oversee this rapacious scheme.
Thus, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin C. Peterson (D-Minn.) declares that a modest proposal to reduce the extent of the plunder has “not convinced the American farmer that you’ve got the right idea.” Fancy that! The mugger insists that the victim, who seeks to retain a few farthings of his own money, does not have the right idea! Why, whatever makes people think that they have a greater right to their own earnings than a gang of millionaire farmers ensconced in their rural palaces in Iowa, Texas, and California or, for a refreshing change of scene, basking in the sea breezes of Hawaii and Martinique.
Indeed, after shouting down a proposed amendment “to phase out traditional subsidies and create tax-exempt risk-management accounts,” the committee members proceeded to compound their crimes and further gild their patrons’ lily. Rather than reducing the guaranteed price of cotton by two cents a pound and eliminating the federal payments for cotton storage, they first voted to retain the current farm program — under which more than $70 billion has been looted from taxpayers since 2002 — keeping these subsidies in place, then added “a 4-cent-pound subsidy for U.S. cotton mills” and gave the agriculture department “broad authority to increase cotton subsidies when prices are low.”
For a hundred years, agricultural economists have studied farm policies from every conceivable angle with regard to their effects on product supplies, product demands, productive efficiency, factor productivity, international and interregional trade, rural levels of living, and so forth. The elephant in the drawing room whose presence hardly anybody acknowledges, however, is that no matter what one concludes with regard to these strictly economic aspects of the farm programs, they are utterly immoral from the get-go. If you can find a purer, more unequivocal example of legal plunder, I’d like to hear about it.
For now, I can do no better than to recall what H. L. Mencken wrote long ago about the American farmer: “No more grasping, selfish and dishonest mammal, indeed, is known to students of the Anthropoidea.” The only exceptions one might venture to suggest are the members of Congress who prostitute themselves to the agribusiness pirates and publicly, shamelessly spout the drivel intended to excuse their crimes.
Robert Higgs [send him mail] is senior fellow in political economy at the Independent Institute and editor of The Independent Review. His most recent book is Neither Liberty Nor Safety: Fear, Ideology, and the Growth of Government. He is also the author of Depression, War, and Cold War: Studies in Political Economy, Resurgence of the Warfare State: The Crisis Since 9/11 and Against Leviathan Government Power and a Free Society.