The Brownsville, Tennessee, offices of the Department of Agriculture were the scene of a recent five-day sit-in by black farmers who claim that government loan applications are being stalled by a racist system. Instead of complaining about racism, though, they should be complaining about socialism.
Over the last 70 years, the American agriculture industry has become a virtual subsidiary of the federal government. Decades of New Deal socialistic programs have propped up farmers through price supports, crop subsidies, and even payment for leaving land fallow. The wedding of government and agriculture is so complete that it’s hard to tell who owns whom.
Typically, farmers complain that they just cannot compete with large corporate farms, and that, therefore, they need government assistance to stay afloat. For certain, the Jeffersonian ideal of a nation of yeoman farmers did go out the window with the Industrial Revolution. Mechanization brought more-efficient farming methods, driving down prices and weeding out inefficient farms. In short, the free market had the same effect on agriculture that it does on everything else — the profitable survive and prosper, while those unable to compete fall by the wayside.
That is not a bad thing. When new methods of production put people out of work, the newly unemployed go to work elsewhere, adding to the net wealth of society. Ask any economist worth his salt, and he’ll tell you this is good.
But the free-market process was greatly undermined in the 1930s. Under President Roosevelt, cradle-to-grave welfare-statism gained a firm hold over American culture, especially in economic life, resulting in such absurd suggestions as “the right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living.” Welfare programs such as farm supports were permanently enshrined into American life.
Supposedly motivated by a desire to provide security for workers (the quest for power might also have played a role), the federal government set out to insulate certain industries from market gales, providing subsidies for everything from agriculture and automobiles to airlines and Amtrak. The result of this business safety net has been a growing belief that success is no longer something to be had by besting your competitors in the marketplace, but rather the result of savvy political maneuvering for more government handouts.
Enterprising members of our greatest industries once poured their lives into hard work. Today, much of that energy is ploughed into manipulating government officials for a bigger chunk of the booty.
But a limited pool of resources to be redistributed means someone must go without, because before the government can give, it must first take away. So the players in the game jockey for position over their fellows. In time, choosing sides becomes a simple game of “us” against “them.”
Thus, when an industry is receiving special treatment from the government, those who control the government are in the position to reward those they like and punish those they don’t. Over the years, this has resulted in favoritism, nepotism, and corruption.
When the power of redistribution lies with a handful of federal bureaucrats, people who will never have to personally face the consequences of their decisions, who can honestly be surprised when immoral and unethical prejudices come to color the scramble for unearned wealth?
If black farmers truly want equal treatment they should demand a truly level playing field, one in which government leaves everyone free to stand or fall on his own merits. In a free-market environment, black farmers could reap the rewards of their hard work without seeing it siphoned off in the form of welfare to prop up their counterparts.
Sadly, the black farmers’ sit-in in Tennessee misdiagnosed the problem altogether. Leaving the Agricultural Department offices, protest leader Gary Grant called on the government “to do … the right thing by all farmers, especially black farmers.” Regardless of their own good intentions, these farmers are hoeing the wrong row. Socialism, not racism, lies at the root of America’s agricultural woes.