Other Views: Farm bill: Government gets win over free market
Democrats don’t yet seem to realize it. But the fact is, their party won a big policy debate in recent weeks — and because that debate for years has been a factor in government shutdowns and other Washington crises, the Dems’ victory is worth noting.
The debate has centered on this question: Can government subsidies and other interventions ever help the U.S. economy and leave Americans better off? The victory arises because Congress now has answered that question by saying “yes.” And not just any “yes,” but a “yes” that drew support from a majority of Republicans (162-63) in the House and almost half — 22 for, 23 against — of GOPers in the Senate. Those votes, of course, came as both houses approved the farm bill and sent the bill to the president.
You can’t overestimate the farm bill vote’s importance in America’s debate on the role of government. For the farm bill represents a deliberate and multi-billion dollar rejection of the claim that a free-market approach always is best. Congress in general and Republicans in particular had a choice. Indeed, Congress in general and Republicans in particular have had a choice every few years since the Depression. That choice has been whether to keep offering a national program of farm supports or to withdraw those supports and let farmers succeed or fail on their own. The 2014 choice now has been made. The rubber has met the road. And members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, unambiguously made their preferences known: The farm bill passed with bipartisan supermajorities in both houses. Government intervention won, and the free-market lost. Why? In our view, the farm bill passed for exactly the reason why it should have passed: because the farm bill works. Since the first farm bill in the 1930s, rural America has been transformed, becoming much healthier and more prosperous than it had been in the decades before that.
The interstate highway system helped. The fact that rural states each have two senators helped as well. But the various farm bills also have played a role.
And urban as well as rural residents agree. No such high-profile policy could have survived for 80 years on interest-group politics alone. Obviously, urban Americans have decided they’re better off with a prosperous “hinterland,” with its bounty of produce, vast landscape of successful farms and network of friendly towns and dynamic cities. As mentioned before in this space, farm-state Republicans deserve great credit for recognizing that in this instance, intervention works, at least in the eyes of most Americans and their representatives. Now, here’s an interesting set of questions for those Republicans to ponder: Might there be other areas in which government action can be a net plus? Or, by remarkable coincidence, is farming both the only industry where the libertarian philosophy falls short and a key element in rural politicians’ self-interest? In recent years, many liberals have acknowledged that when it comes to the connection between poverty and single-parent homes, conservatives have something useful to say. And if the farm bill vote is any indication, it’s conservatives turn to nod in the liberals’ direction — this time on the idea that the government isn’t always the problem after all.