RUSS ROBERTS

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What Do Farmers Want From Me?

From Ideas on Liberty

You’d think in a democracy that the greater the number of people on your side of an issue, the more likely it will be that you’ll get your way. But it ain’t necessarily so. As Mancur Olson, Gary Becker, and others have pointed out, in politics, small is often beautiful.

Take farmers. When farmers were numerous in this country, they had less political influence than today now that they’re a miniscule portion of the population. The reason is that we’re not a pure democracy where majority rule decides every issue. We’re a constitutional republic. That’s a glorious thing. It prevents minorities from being tyrannized by the majority. But it also allows minorities to exploit the majority.

In the case of agricultural policy, the geographic concentration of farmers leads to farmers having much more political power than they otherwise would have in a pure democracy. Their small numbers make it easier for them to organize effectively to lobby and fundraise. Their geographic concentration means that in some states, their political power is enhanced. And because each state receives two Senators regardless of population, farm-state Senators have disproportionate influence on political outcomes.

It’s an international phenomenon. French farmers have disproportionate power compared to the average citizen. And the same goes for Japan. But it doesn’t happen in India where farmers are numerous.

America’s farmers recently flexed their muscles in getting a new farm bill with billions of dollars worth of subsidies. You’d think farmers would be embarrassed to be on the dole, one hand on the plow, the other hand rifling through my wallet and yours. Some of them are embarrassed. But a lot of farmers try to keep the moral high ground at the same time they’re stooping to take taxpayer money. In Japan, farmers propagandize about the dangers of foreign rice. That helps rationalize protectionism that keeps Japanese rice prices many times above prices outside of Japan.

In America, farmers talk about the inherent importance of farmland for farmland’s sake. They talk about the importance of guaranteeing America’s food supply. (Yet somehow, for the myriad of food stuffs without subsidy, the shelves are always full.)

Farmers and their friends in Washington can get pretty creative when finding reasons for why they should be protected from competition. The milk business in America is highly regulated. Such regulations lead to strange outcomes that would never persist in a free market-dairy farming in Florida and large, persistent differentials in milk prices across state lines.

I once heard the director of the Northeast Dairy Compact try to justify its existence at a Congressional hearing. The Compact is a cartel Congress authorized to protect northeastern dairy farmers in the United States from competition. Why was such a cartel justified? Milk is different from other products, the director explained-it’s perishable. But lots of products are perishable, a Senator pointed out. Well, it’s more than that, said the director. Milk’s bulky, he explained.

Bulky? There are many bulky products that do just fine without federal subsidy. But even so, how is milk bulky? He might have just as well have said that milk is special because it’s white. Really white. Really white products need government support.

But sometimes you hear a more basic argument. The bumper sticker version goes like this: “Don’t complain about farmers with your mouth full.” I guess a shorter version might read: “Don’t complain about farmers.” We all have to eat to stay alive, so the implication is that we owe farmers for our existence and should limit ourselves to the emotion of gratitude rather than its opposite.

Parents sometimes try a similar ploy on their kids. “I brought you into this world, I fed you, I clothed you, so I don’t want to hear any whining about my imperfections as a parent.”

There’s a certain logic to this view when it comes from a parent. Only after you have a child do you realize what your parents went through. On the material and financial side, it is a one-sided relationship that is rarely balanced even at the end of our parents’ lives. You should be grateful to your parents. But of course, that doesn’t entitle a parent to berate or abuse a child on the grounds that “Hey, I might be cruel and malicious, but on net, you’re still ahead, you little brat.”

And farmers aren’t parents. My relationship with farmers is a reciprocal relationship. I pay for the food I eat. If farmers showed up at our houses out of the goodness of their hearts and literally put food on our tables, I’d feel a great deal of gratitude. But that’s what my parents did. They put food on the table with no expectation of receiving anything in return.

But farmers get paid for the food they provide. They don’t put food on the table. They sell me the food that I put there. People farm for lots of reasons including the joy of working the land and the satisfaction of producing one of life’s essentials. But the money is what keeps people in the business and gets them to put up with the long hours and the uncertainty and everything negative about being a farmer.

And the last time I looked, farmers weren’t chained to the land. They were free to leave as millions have over the last century. In a free society, the price of food adjusts to keep enough farmers on the land to satisfy the demand for food. Prices produce sufficient income for farmers to make it worth their while to stay in what is a tough and demanding profession.

I’m glad there are farmers in America. It’s a tough job. But there are a lot of tough jobs. After I’ve paid the market price, I don’t owe anything additional. I may feel gratitude. The farmer may feel the satisfactions of the job that go beyond money. But I don’t expect the farmer to lower the price of the product because the job is a satisfying one. I would never tell a farmer or a teacher or a gardener: the non-monetary part of your job is so rewarding, you should be willing to do it for less. Or for free.

And similarly, I don’t expect a farmer to demand more money from me, above and beyond the market price, just because eating is essential.

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