Posted by: bridget | 3 March 2008

Fruit & Federalism

or, “Why the crazy libertarians who want the Feds to mind their own business might have a point.”

In the United States, farmers who grow commodity crops (soy, corn, wheat, rice, and cotton) are given subsidies for their land.  If they later convert the land for the planting of fruits and vegetables, they are heavily penalised: not only do they lose the subsidy for that acreage, they are penalised the market value of the crops grown on that land.  A small farmer in Minnesota described the problem:

In my case, that meant I paid my landlords $8,771 — for one season alone! … The federal farm program is making it next to impossible for farmers to rent land to me to grow fresh organic vegetables.  Why? Because national fruit and vegetable growers based in California, Florida and Texas fear competition from regional producers like myself. Through their control of Congressional delegations from those states, they have been able to virtually monopolize the country’s fresh produce markets.

The Founders, in their wisdom, devised a system of limited federal power, which allows less-populous states and regions to retain their autonomy.  The twentieth century’s massive centralisation of power in Congress has allowed those with access and power – more populated states, wealthy lobbyists – to control a greater portion of the country’s lawmaking.  A law made on the federal level is hardly equivalent to the same one made on the state level: in the latter scenario, voters may organise grassroots campaigns, contact their representatives, and ensure that the legislation is tailored to the interests and needs of their state.  

The decline of federalism correlates with a decline in autonomy and an increase in rent-seeking and special interest legislation.   There is no rational reason why California farmers ought to be able to control Minnesota farms, even via the indirect mechanism of Congressional machinations.  As the left’s oxes – environmentalism, organic produce, the small competitors of Big Business – are gored, perhaps liberals will understand that federalism is a necessary component of liberty. 



  1. Theo,

    I have some questions about the assumptions that seem to be at work in the “libertarian perspective”, and I hope you can clear them up for me. I realize that there’s a lot of charged rhetoric around this, so I want to make it clear that I’m not trying to be challenging, but am truly interested in hearing your response.

    The first is that it appears that the libertarian assumption is that the best solution to a niche problem in a larger system is best fixed by eliminating the system entierly.

    Second, there seems to be an assumption that the solutions arrived at by allowing market forces to work unrestricted will arrive at the BEST solutions…despite the fact that the choices that people make, which drive market forces are often made in ignorance, and with irrational motivations. There is little argument that SOME solution will eventually arrive from market forces…but I’m not sure that there is any indication that they will be superior to designed solutions at a rate beyond random chance.

    There seems to be an assumption that the problems caused by certain government systems are worse than than the problems they were designed to avoid, which I have a difficult time believing since countries that don’t have such systems suffer tremendously from the lack of them (in predictable ways) whereas countries that have such systems (and those who run the systems are answerable to the population) suffer to a lesser degree.

    The caveat being, of course, that where the government systems are not answerable to the people, they are a menace.

    I’d also like to just quickly say that one does not have to go all the way to California to find the source of the small farmer’s agribusiness-caused woes. Monsanto can run rough-shod over the State of Minnesota much more easily and cheaply than it can the federal government.

    From my perspective, it is the involvement of the people, their familiarity with and involvment in the formation, functioning and oversight of the systems that make them work better, not the elimination of them.

  2. Theo is better at this than I, but I will attempt to address your questions.

    #1, If I understand you correctly, you are saying that just because our current system of government produces some bad results (federal gov’t making more decisions for the states), that is no reason to scrap the system altogether. But I think there are multiple reasons to favor more power to the states, less to the federal gov’t.

    #2, I suppose that is the root of why we are who we are politically. On the individual level, people may make irrational decisions. Hopefully they learn from them and change their decision making, but I think most conservatives and small ‘l’ libertarians believe in some sort of safety net for those who continue to make terrible decisions. But on the whole, I think the best thing going for the market perspective is the idea of the feedback mechanism. A terrible hack job would be to say that consumers respond to prices, then the prices respond to consumers, vice versa.

    Yes, in a free market system, and in a more socialist democracy, things are governed by the people in some sense, but the free market can respond faster and is accommodating towards more groups, instead of a “one size fits all” policy.

    There is also empirical evidence, but that seems to always go in circles. One person has their study that says socialism (I’m not saying your a socialist, just an example) is best, I have my studies saying capitalism is best.

  3. Chance,

    Thanks for your response. It gives me a few things to mull over, and certainly seems more cogent than most explenations I get.

    I think you might be limiting the scope of my #2 question…in that you are viewing the results of the irrational decisions as the effects they have on the people making them, while I was referring more to the mass effect of numerous irrational decisions on the market (masses of people favoring an inferior technology while a superior technology gets scuttled, for instance)

    I don’t consider myself a socialist, but then, most Libertarians I know tell me that I will find out differently when Chairman Mao chooses me as his best friend in Hell.


    Once again, thanks for the food for thought. It has been refreshing.

  4. Oh, and sorry Theo for posting such a time-consuming question.

    I slipped my mind temporarily that you are studying for the bar. I will search elsewhere for my Libertarian input, and just content myself with gleaning any bread crumbs you choose to drop while immersed in the law.


  5. Bar-studying begins in a few months. Just swamped with the end of law school.

    Chance did a good job with the explanation of a small “l” libertarian philosophy.

    Federalism and libertarianism tend to be correlated, but they deal with different issues. Federalism tells you how power ought to be allocated (on a state or local level, preferably), while libertarianism tells you what powers may be exercised by the government. So to some extent, I wasn’t really addressing a libertarian issue (aside from the idea that it’s not any government’s – state nor federal – what crops are planted).

    There seems to be an assumption that the problems caused by certain government systems are worse than than the problems they were designed to avoid, which I have a difficult time believing since countries that don’t have such systems suffer tremendously from the lack of them (in predictable ways) whereas countries that have such systems (and those who run the systems are answerable to the population) suffer to a lesser degree.

    Without more specifics, I’ll have to disagree. If you are saying that crop subsidies are responsible for our Bill of Rights, I’ll have to disagree. Correlation and causation are not the same thing.

    There are despotic societies that take money from their ruled subjects, while it at least appears as if ours gives money away.

    The rights that we enjoy as Americans – voting, free speech, a divided government, an independent judiciary – are not the things that libertarians disagree with. We leave that to anarchists. It’s not that we want to dissolve ALL government* – just the parts that are not necessary to the function of a free society. Civilisation needs lawmakers and a judiciary – otherwise, it is rule by strength of force and not reason.

    *Problem is, when we say perfectly rational things like, “Let’s get rid of the Department of Education and the Department of Agriculture,” people then think that we’ll start hacking away at the judicial branch if given a chance to do so. I don’t think that many people really appreciate the scope and the problems associated with agencies and Departments like those. The free market would be far better at determining which crops ought to be planted: this article illustrates that perfectly. People are screaming for healthy, fresh fruit, grown locally and organically. Good for the environment, good for their bodies, and the government deems that an unsuitable use for the land.

    Most libertarians want to severely reduce the frightening amount of bureaucracy that has been created since the New Deal. Over 90% of our laws are created by administrative agencies, whose “rulemakers” are not subject to any election or public check.

    The irrationality/unknowledgable hypothesis actually supports a strong decentralisation of power. As it stands now, no citizen has the time, money, or energy to fly to Washington D.C. and harass Congress about various issues. As a result, the people who can influence Congressmen are those with the means to do so, and who have something to gain from doing it. If we organised on the state level, a citizen would have a much easier time tracking down an elected representative and complaining. There is much more accountability to the people, which, while ineffective if each and every person is required to be a watchdog, works when the work is divided. People will throw a fit when their elected representatives sell out their pet issues.

    As for lack of knowledge and inefficiencies: yeah, well, it’s still better than the government. :) To some extent, there is a rational ignorance: if it costs me $10 (in terms of money and/or time) to find out the difference between two routes, one of which has potential costs of $5 and the other of $7, I’m better off just guessing. Someone who wants to do the work can do so, then sell the information for $1 to 11 people and make a profit. (Consumer Reports does this, as does AAA with its diamond ratings.) Or, when people work together (as we tend to do), they will all take parts of our society and analyse them.

  6. Theo,

    OK, thanks for the response. I’m adjusting a lot, since (for example) I was under the impression that Consumer Reports was an evil collectivist plot to mislead people into buying politically correct products and smear and destroy virtuous corporations.


    You can see why I’m delighted for the opportunity to talk to you.

    The place I get sent a lot is the Center for Consumer Freedom, for instance. They’re the ones that really made me interested in Libertarianism. That, and a libertarian Ron Paul fan on my blog, who doesn’t lay things out in quite the orderly way you do. :-)

  7. Agree with Theo. Federalism and libertarianism aren’t really the same, but libertarians tend to incorporate federalism into their philosophy. And it makes sense that people who want less government power want the power remaining to be as decentralized as possible.

  8. Teresa,

    I’m not commenting on the value of what Consumer Reports does, in terms of its methodology; it’s just that it, like AAA and Good Housekeeping, sell knowledge to those who would otherwise be rationally ignorant. Sounds like the free market at work – and I would take a left-leaning Consumer Reports any day over a government that makes the same dictates.

    I enjoy talking with you as well.


    thank you. :)

  9. No subsidy, no problem. Right?

  10. Not sure I understand.

    I don’t think that the feds ought to be giving the subsidies anyway. As it stands now, you are penalised for using land that formerly had a subsidy attached to it. That’s not just “no subsidy, no problem;” that restricts the use of the land.

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