"Everything the state says is a lie and everything it has, it has stolen."
~ Nietzsche, from Thus Spake Zarathustra
As of Tuesday, June 12, 2007, a Washington, DC not-for-profit named The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is hosting a website that lists all the people receiving federal farm aid. As any regular reader of sites such as LRC would expect, more than a couple of people on this list of farm aid recipients are not exactly "needy." In fact the purpose of the group's efforts is to shine a bright light on the number of "rich" people getting federal farm aid.
While exposing these gifts-to-the-non-needy is certainly a noble goal, not everyone is excited about the EWG and what they claim to be after. That disclaimer about the EWG aside, the question with which we title this essay still seems pertinent. In fact, this situation provides another example of one of the early "truths" that drove us inevitably toward radical libertarianism. That truism is simply this: the State steals money and then gives it away stupidly. (Nietzsche said it first, and better, but one would expect that.)
The real problem is that, as with almost any government program, the implementation of farm aid results in, shall we say, "improper" recipients. For instance, it was recently revealed that almost three quarters of farm subsidies go to the richest 10% of American farmers, and that the cost to the average American family was over $400 a year. According to the Associated Press, the database, which was culled from information recently released by the United States Department of Agriculture, includes about 358,000 beneficiaries who received $9.8 billion in crop subsidy benefits between 2003 and 2005. (Not a bad payday for a rich non-farmer!)
What we really wonder is this: is anyone surprised when people fall all over themselves vying for free cash? We've long maintained that one should view federal funds like a large sow with many juicy, succulent teats and those who take the funds like greedy little pigs. No one expects a little piggy to eschew a teat, right? For that matter, is there anyone who thinks the most able-bodied pigs would let the sickly (read: under-represented, disadvantaged, etc., assuming one can define those terms) pigs suckle first? Of course not. (Hell, were we pigs, we very likely wouldn't let any loser-pigs ahead of us either!) And so it goes.
Unexpected Consequences, As Expected
As you would naturally expect, the violence at the root of farm subsidies begets more violence. In underdeveloped countries, locally-grown goods are often much more expensive than heavily-subsidized American imports. Poor farmers are thus unable to compete — and, since these countries lack the capital and stability to compete in the manufacturing sector, destitute farmers have little choice but to turn to the government for employment, or crime for survival. Thus the public sector swells, crime increases — and hey, whadaya you know, but here come the Americans with wonderful foreign aid packages. These packages always seem to contain lots of fine print about buying US goods, hiring US companies, and purchasing US weapons, but no matter — there's always a boatload of lovely greenbacks left over to line the pockets of local warlords!
This is how the cycle of violence escalates throughout the world. US taxpayers are forced to subsidize domestic farmers; foreign countries retaliate with tariffs; the US government retaliates with counter-tariffs, which raises the price of goods for US citizens. Undercut by subsidized US farm products, destitute foreign farmers turn to public-sector employment — or even more direct forms of criminality — and thus US taxpayers are further preyed upon to pay for foreign aid programs.
The proceeds of foreign aid programs are used by increasingly-despotic governments to repress their own citizens and buy more weapons from US manufacturers. The resentment that foreigners feel towards the US government for destroying their local economies — not to mention their personal liberties — emerges as anti-American rhetoric; the US government then inflates fears of terrorism, and further attacks its citizens to pay for additional "defense." Since they cannot profitably grow and sell "legitimate" crops, farmers in the Third World turn to the production of marijuana, heroin and other illegal drugs. This drives the price of drugs down in the United States, causing increased consumption, which then further allows the government to attack its citizens on the grounds of the endless "war on (some) drugs" — as well as attack foreigners — by napalming poppy fields, overturning governments, or straight-on invasions.
The take-home message here is just as it always is when one examines the results of government intervention in the free market: money for those who don't need it, violence for those who don't deserve it, and more power for those who shouldn't have it, all financed with tax dollars. Ironically, whenever this type of gubmint waste is identified, the response is almost always a hue and cry for more gubmint waste, via oversight, regulation, enforcement, etc. One such magic bullet, offered as a sure-fire cure for not only things like rich people getting farm aid but also the "improper" application of social security payments, is means testing.
Call us ungrateful, but from where we sit means tests are just a methodology that allows those who stole our money to better spend it. It's analogous to the Sopranos hiring a financial planner for the protection money. How about we go back to the beginning and let us just keep it? If a program with specious pedigree — like farm subsidies — can be depended upon to result in people like Texas oil billionaire Lee Bass and former NBA star Scottie Pippen getting a subsidy, the problem isn't lack of oversight. The problem is that the program exists at all. The problem, as always, is the initiation of violence.
In fact, from a libertarian perspective, the goals of the EWG in this regard seem to be all about seeking a more equitable distribution of farm subsidies, versus the real answer: stopping them altogether. It's as if they're saying, "Let's keep stealing, but let's make sure we do it more accurately." No thanks.
Paying a farmer to not grow/grow a crop — outside the "pull" of the market — was stupid the first time some lobbyist thought of it.
Wilt Alston [send him mail] lives in Rochester, NY, with his wife and three children. When he's not training for a marathon or furthering his part-time study of libertarian philosophy, he works as a principal research scientist in transportation safety, focusing primarily on the safety of subway and freight train control systems. Stefan Molyneux [send him mail] is a full-time philosopher. His first novel, Revolutions was published in 2004, and his new book On Truth: The Tyranny of Illusion was published this year. Listen to his podcast, which you can get by clicking here — or, you like iTunes better, you can click here. For more articles, please see his archives. He is the host of Freedomain Radio.