NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


September 12, 2007

The farm legislation proceeding through Congress symbolizes much of what's wrong with Washington.  It's government by inertia.  We do today what we did yesterday, because politicians draw their power from distributing benefits and various interest groups feel entitled to receive them -- even if they serve no defensible public purpose. Our extravagant farm programs capture the absurdity as well as any other, says columnist Robert J. Samuelson.

Since 1970, farm subsidies have totaled $578 billion, according to the historical tables of the U.S. budget. What has the public gotten for this vast outlay?  Not much.  Food would be produced without subsidies, says Samuelson:

  • Roughly 90 percent of commodity payments go to farmers raising grains (wheat, corn), soybeans, cotton and rice; these products represent about a fifth of farm cash receipts.
  • Meanwhile, meat, vegetable and fruit producers get no direct subsidies: In 2005, meat output alone (beef, chicken, pork, veal) totaled 86.8 billion pounds.

Well, maybe farm subsidies "saved" the family farm?  Not exactly, says Samuelson.

  • Farm subsidies date to the Great Depression; in 1932, there were 6.7 million farms, and the farm population was 25 percent of the nation's total.
  • By 2002, the number of farms had dwindled to 2.1 million, and the farm population was about 2 percent of the total.
  • More mechanization, better seeds and cultivation practices have enabled fewer, bigger farms to produce more food.

There is often a life cycle in government programs.  They start for good cause or with good intentions, then perpetuate themselves by creating a protective web of interests -- constituents who believe that they have property rights in benefits, politicians whose power derives from renewing or expanding the benefits, and lobbies that exist to influence crucial politicians.  Farm programs adhere faithfully to this cycle, says Samuelson.

Source: Robert J. Samuelson, "A Bumper Crop of Inertia," Washington Post, September 12, 2007.

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