Victor Davis Hanson: Pruning Farm Subsidies

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.]

In times of massive deficits, why are we borrowing millions to subsidize profitable agribusiness? Lots of presidents have asked that question. George H. W. Bush tried to cut farm subsidies. Bill Clinton did, too. George W. Bush wanted them ended as well. All failed.

The so-called “Freedom to Farm Act” of 1996 was supposed to stop farm supports for good, by offering the carrot of extending crop payouts to growers, regardless of current commodity prices, in exchange for ending the flow of federal money altogether after a slow weaning-off period of seven years. But when it came time to honor the agreement, suddenly a new rationale appeared — that of post-9/11 security. So crop subsidies reappeared under the “Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002,” on the dubious premise that in a new terrorist climate, Americans needed to ensure the prosperity of agribusiness. In today’s bureaucratese, remember, “investment” translates into the government borrowing more money to distribute to special interests.

When worries about national security gradually died down, and when it was clear that agribusiness would not accept the ending of subsidies as promised over a seven-year period, a new justification arose: providing fuel for an energy-strapped America under the “Food Conservation and Energy Act of 2008” — a $288 billion, five-year agricultural bill. Supposedly farmers now needed massive crop subsidies to ensure our independence from foreign oil producers and sky-high gas prices.

Even presidents cannot stop Congress from passing these unnecessary farm bills, because they are brilliantly, one might say cynically, conceived. Such federal support always uses the current crisis of the day — whether the promise is to cut the deficit, protect the country, or provide new energy....

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