Free the family farm

Of farm subsidies, Matt Zeitlin says "Don't make it fair; make it die" and asks:

Why should “family farmers” be subsidized at all? What is a family farmer? If subsides are bad because they undercut the prices of local farmers in the developing world, doesn’t the wheat a “family farmer” grows still undercut a Ghanan farmer? What about the quotas and tariffs that unfairly advantage all American farmers?

Family farmers needn’t all die out in a world without perverse subsidies and price supports. The growing interest in local, organic and humanely grown food all benefits small, non-industrial farms. But it’s still not clear to me why it’s in the government’s job to devote billions of dollars protecting any farmers — be they family or corporate.

Ultimately, well meaning groups like Oxfam and well meaning people like Yglesias and Garance are just going to have this rhetoric of the noble family farmer — who’s never been a smaller portion of the US population — used against them to justify the continuance of our insane agricultural polices.

The utter wrongness of our farm policy is one thing that almost every urban American, from conservative through libertarian straight on via liberal into crazed enviro-anarchist, can agree upon. And they're right: farm subsidies are stupid; go mostly to large businesses that should either figure out how to make money on farming without subsidies, or deploy their capital more productively; and exacerbate poverty among the poorest of the poor, farmers in the developing world.

And yet, there's a certain callousness to the way we dismiss those farmers. My mother grew up on a small farming town in western New York state, and there was something worth preserving in that way of life. It was, to be sure, narrow and parochial, two things that city-dwellers hate. But it also found a way to include everyone in the life of the community, from poor to rich, dumb to smart, infant to dodderer. And the bonds that those people had were tighter and more dependable than those of a mobile society. My grandfather died surrounded by every single living person he had ever loved--his wife, his children, the best friend from high school who was also his brother in law. My great aunt Helen, who lived at the assisted living facility attached to the hospital where he died, was with him eight or more hours a day. It was a better way to die than anyone in a younger generation could hope for.

I would hate it, of course; I'm not cut out for small-town living. And even if I wanted to live that way, there is no way to actually preserve it. Farm subsidies, aside from all their other flaws, are hopeless at actually keeping communities like that going, because like every other form of government intervention, end up benefitting not the telegenic recipients the policies are aimed at, but the special interests who are sufficiently well-connected to divert the policy to their own ends.

We could, however, be more sensitive to why those communities continue to support subsidies. If you have ever had a glimmer of sympathy for a brownstone owner who wants to keep their neighborhood exactly as it is even though this means that the poor will have trouble finding housing, then you should be able to grasp why farmers want the government to help them preserve something they love.