GHEI: Crop cronyism

Trillion-dollar farm bill is the latest example of what’s wrong with our economy

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Combine a Midwestern drought with pointless ethanol mandates, and the supplies of corn inevitably dwindle, driving prices sky high. Politicians like Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat, are citing the crop crisis as an excuse to ram through a near-$1 trillion farm bill. While a bit of that cash might find its way to a small farmer, the bulk of the loot will be transferred to individuals who are anything but poor. Like the bank bailouts and TARP, the farm bill illustrates the capture of the legislative process by special interests.

The last farm bill in 2008 was the focus of $173.5 million in lobbying expenditure, according to a report released Tuesday by Food & Water Watch. This is all money spent on what the Mercatus Center’s Matthew Mitchell calls “unproductive entrepreneurship” where people are organizing and expending their talent to become rent seekers, and the end result is wealth redistribution, not wealth creation. Real entrepreneurship innovates in ways that are socially useful. Cronyism diverts resources — both money and talent — into a system that rewards privileges to favored groups. In the case of the 2008 farm bill, recipients of subsidies of $30,000 or more had an average household income of $210,000.

Mr. Mitchell argues that “government-granted privilege is an extraordinarily destructive force” because it not only results in a misallocation of resources and slower growth, it undermines civil society and the legitimacy of government by providing a rich soil for corruption.

Government privileges come in many forms, direct and indirect. It might be a monopoly, such as the one granted to utilities like Pepco. Regulations such as licensing can be used to limit entry to a particular field to the benefit of existing businesses. Lobbying and the revolving door in Washington create what economists call “regulatory capture,” which is what happens when existing firms use regulatory agencies to benefit themselves. Tax breaks, loan guarantees and subsidies are the most direct signs of a government’s favor. Bailouts of big banks under TARP, and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac when the housing bubble burst, are the most recent examples of direct action.

Extending each of these privileges reduces America’s economic competitiveness. A monopoly protected by the government has little incentive to provide good service. The greater the availability of privileges, the greater is the incentive to indulge in rent seeking, which diverts resources from truly productive activities. In the long run, the result of anti-competitive policies is less innovation, lower growth and a smaller pie to share.

The greatest scourge to the honest Midwest farmer is not unfavorable weather, pestilence or disease. Far worse for them is the plague of politicians who create an artificial market in which only those with influence can truly compete. Defeating the budget-busting 2012 farm bill is the best chance at a good harvest.

Nita Ghei is a contributing Opinion writer for The Washington Times.

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