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Farmers: Get a Job!

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It kind of makes me wonder what country I’m living in when I pick up the newspaper and read this from the Associated Press:

“With crop prices mired near record lows, the government says farm earnings will drop 20 percent this year unless Congress enacts a new farm program or approves more emergency payments.”

Hello? Is this free enterprise, profit-and-loss America, or have I crossed over into the Twilight Zone: Welcome to Cuba?

Before we dissect this “news,” let’s step back and appreciate the big picture. For many years the environmental movement has been warning that the out-of-control human race will imminently starve itself to death because of the Malthusian notion that population growth will outstrip food production.

Well, it hasn’t quite worked that way. Instead of starving people and wealthy farmers (which is what should have happened if the doomsayers were right), we have fat people (see the recent Surgeon General’s report) and farmers bellyaching about low crop prices.

The bad news, then, is good.

Getting back to the AP story: I’m a magazine editor, and I have yet to read in the newspaper that “editors’ earnings will drop 20 percent this year unless Congress enacts a new editor program or approves more emergency payments.” Do you know what I and my fellow editors have to do if our earnings drop to a level too low to live on? We have to look for higher-paying jobs! I assume that mechanics and real-estate salesman have to do the same.

But not the farmers. They have apparently been bestowed with the Divine Right to Farm. If they can’t make enough to live on, they have the legal power to loot the rest of us so they can stay on the farm anyway. This sounds like insanity. Would someone please explain it to me?

Maybe the yeoman farmer, the noble man of the soil, is too busy lobbying for taxpayer subsidies to learn a little economics. But when a line of work won’t pay a satisfactory income, it is the market’s way of saying we have enough people doing that; go find something else to do. Why should farmers be an exception to a perfectly good rule?

An economist at Texas A&M was quoted saying, “Congress is looking at these numbers and saying, ‘We can’t live with that.’” Hah! He means that members of Congress won’t let us taxpayers live with that, since they aren’t planning to subsidize the farmers out of their own pockets. I can live with it, thank you. Besides, I gave last year, and the year before. I’m thinking it’s time for the farmers to stand on their own two feet.

Do you realize that 30 percent of the wheat farmers’ gross income comes from the government? Thirty percent! The guys that grow other grains and soybeans get 20 percent of their income from Washington. Can you say “socialized agriculture”?

I know how the farmers would respond. They need special treatment because they have to contend with the weather and price fluctuations. Like that’s something new. Farmers have been plagued by drought, floods, and pests since biblical times. Uncertain prices are just as old. Guess what: the free market long ago evolved ways for farmers to transfer the risks to people willing to accept them in return for the prospect of high profits. They’re called insurance and futures markets. The government has screwed up crop insurance because it thinks it can handle it better than private companies. The futures markets still work. The principle is simple. A farmer doesn’t know what the price of his crop will be when he plants it. But there have always been risk-takers who are willing to bet that the price will be even higher than the farmer is happy to accept. So the risk-taker promises to buy the crop from the farmer at an agreed-on price. That gives the farmer a guarantee against a lower price and the risk-taker the chance for a real killing. Everyone is happy.

In other words, farmers don’t warrant special treatment. Capitalist technological advances have made it possible to grow more food on less land and with fewer farmers. Why don’t we face it already?

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.