Many people today bemoan the fact that the two major parties in American politics can’t reach agreement. I, on the other hand, often find that the most inexplicable decisions are those that both parties agree on. In response to the recent drought, everyone on both sides of the aisle seems to agree that we need to fork over a large chunk of taxpayer money to hard-hit farmers. Each side accuses the other of using the issue as a political football and trying to attach other legislation to it. Nobody of significance is questioning whether we should give the money. Among supporters of the handouts, I haven’t seen any even trying to justify it. Apparently handouts of this sort are second nature among the political class.
One reason I’ve seen offered in the past is that the government should support farmers to achieve food security, i.e. a guarantee that the USA will have enough food to eat. If our nation’s food supply were in serious doubt, this might be a reasonable argument. Right now, though, we have more than enough food and are in no danger of running out.
Another possible reason is that we need to support people in need when disaster hits. Most farmers aren’t exactly doing badly, though, so even those who support a generous social safety net for the poor would have little reason to insist on handouts for farmers right now. At most the circumstances would seem to justify targeted handouts to poor farmers in hard-hit areas, rather than massive aid and price supports for everyone.
Further, there is the question of why it should be the government that provides aid. Farming is an industry that depends on many unknowns: rainfall, temperature, economic decisions in other countries, and so forth. Farmers should purchase insurance to protect themselves against possible disaster. Private companies could provide that insurance. There’s no need for the government to step in and offer insurance instead. If farmers and private insurance companies negotiated prices, they’d have a motivation to think carefully about whether it makes sense to use a piece of land. If the government all but guarantees a profit for farmers, then farmers might as well use as much land as possible to maximize their profits. The result hurts the environment and conservation efforts.
Government handouts also affect what gets eaten. It’s the meat industry that’s been hit hardest by drought, because the shortage of corn and soybeans will send feed prices spiraling. Without government intervention, this would cause meat prices to rise and people to purchase less of it. This would be good for the environment and lead to less animal cruelty. By intervening to prop up the meat industry, the government makes sure that the animal cruelty and the pollution caused by the meat industry will continue.
In addition, handouts affect the political priorities of farmers. This year’s drought is only the worst in a series of major droughts to hit in recent years. Most scientists agree that man-made global warming is causing these droughts. If farmers had to suffer financial consequences from these droughts, they’d have a strong financial motivation to seek action against global warming. But if the government ensures that they get the same profits regardless of whether or not there’s drought, the farmers don’t have any financial motivation to care about global warming.