Friedrich Hayek was born this day in 1899. Hayek had a huge influence on the development of my political thinking. I learned about Hayek’s existence when William F. Buckley spoke at Virginia Tech and touted the Austrian economist’s opposition to the Welfare State. I zipped to the bookstore the next morning and snared Hayek’s 1944 masterpiece, The Road to Serfdom. I had previously read Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom and appreciated his stout defense of free markets. But Hayek’s books, especially his The Constitution of Liberty, provided far deeper insights into the historical, philosophical, and legal foundations of individual freedom. Hayek’s superb bibliographies catapulted me into a dozen long-forgotten political classics from the 1600s to the modern era. (For more details of Hayek’s influence, see Public Policy Hooligan).
One of the first (attempted) “serious” pieces I sent a political magazine was a long, indignant response to a scoffing American Spectator review of the second volume of Hayek’s Law Legislation and Liberty trilogy in 1977. “The Mirage of Social Justice” was invaluable for getting a handle on the fundamental absurdity of the pursuit of fair prices for agricultural and trade policy. The Spectator editors wavered on publishing part of my response and then gave a thumbs-down to any retort to their staffer/reviewer. My letter wasn’t that well written – but it recognized Hayek’s merits far more clearly than did the magazine’s review.
Nine years after hearing his lecture on Hayek, I was on Buckley’s public television debate show, Firing Line, after he saw a piece I wrote attacking farm subsidies in the New York Times. I only spoke briefly with Buckley prior to and after the taping; he was very busy that day. Buckley did a long introduction at the start of the program; I think I cringed when he misidentified me as a graduate of Virginia Tech (I dropped out), but I did not see any graceful way to interrupt him to set the record straight. Re-reading the transcript (below at the PDF link), I suspect that some of my smart-ass replies to the farm subsidy apologist may have grated on Buckley’s nerves.
I want to thank Rachel Bauer of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University for sending me this transcript. Unfortunately, the videotape of that interview is in poor condition and they do not have plans to upgrade it and place it on the Internet.
The New York Times
January 16, 1985, Wednesday, Late City Final Edition
SECTION: Section A; Page 23, Column 2; Editorial Desk
HEADLINE: STOP CODDLING FARMERS
BYLINE: By James Bovard ; James Bovard writes frequently on agricultural issues.
BODY: Agricultural policy is probably the Reagan Administration’s largest domestic failure. Federal spending for agricultural price supports soared sevenfold between 1980 and 1983. The total cost of farm programs exceeded $50 billion in 1983, yet farm bankruptcies are near record highs, farmland value is falling and farm income is 20 percent below 1979 levels. The more the Government has spent, the worse off farmers have become.
One commodity program after another has lapsed into economic absurdity. Honey price supports will cost $94 million this year – the equivalent of the market value of the entire honey crop. The Agriculture Department spent the equivalent of nine-tenths of the value of the rice crop last year in subsidies. Payments for wool production are twice the value of the total wool produced.
Current policies are a tangle of contradictions. Some programs bribe farmers to increase production, others bribe them to reduce production. Some drive up the price of land, others provide cheap credit for a lucky few to buy land. There are programs that drive up domestic grain prices, and export programs that reduce prices for foreigner buyers.
The Agriculture Department is trying to insure farm prosperity by reducing crop production. Last year, it paid farmers $10 billion to idle over 70 million acres. But, while the department pays American farmers to cut back their acreage, other countries have increased production and reaped the benefit of America’s cutbacks. Our agricultural export volume has fallen 10 percent since 1980 as Argentina, Australia and Canada
have moved into world grain markets that we are abandoning. Farmers are suffering because Congress has set crop price support levels above world market prices. As a result, farmers cannot sell their crops on the market and end up producing for Government storage rather than consumers. High price supports are the equivalent of unilateral economic disarmament – trade suicide in the race for exports. Exports accounted for more than half the United States’ cash receipts for crop sales in 1982, yet Congress still makes policy as if America were an island. Soybeans have been the fastest growing farm export in recent years, mainly because soybeans have had less Government ”protection” than other crops. Soybean price supports are set at the average of the previous five-year market price. This program, which should serve as a model for other commodities programs, provides a price floor for producers without interfering
(c) 1985 The New York Times, January 16, 1985
with the market. Congress still justifies farm welfare by singing odes about the family farmer. But the Agriculture Department reported last year that one percent of the nation’s farms earned 60 percent of net farm income. Memories of an idyllic past are no justification for pouring millions into the coffers of agribusinesses. And agricultural programs are clobbering consumers. Dairy price supports and marketing restrictions add 18 cents to the price of a gallon of milk. The sugar program is holding domestic sugar prices at four times world prices – and providing average benefits of almost $100,000 apiece for domestic sugar growers. The Senate Budget Committee estimated that in 1982, for every dollar in direct Government payments, farmers received another $4 in indirect payments from consumers because of Government- caused food price inflation.
If agricultural programs are not thoroughly overhauled, their cost will skyrocket even further. A new hormone is increasing milk production in dairy cows by up to 40 percent – and could add $8 billion to Federal dairy program costs. A new strain of rice is boosting yields by 35 percent – and could add billions to the cost of the rice program. And if our price supports continue above world market prices, exports will continue falling, and a permanent depression could settle on rural America.
American agriculture has been hurt by the strong dollar, but Congress and the White House have done far more damage. The sooner we end farmer welfare, the healthier agriculture will be. Four years of megabuck handouts have impoverished farmers, hurt consumers and skinned taxpayers. That agricultural policy is best which interferes least.B
The New York Times