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The Farm Bill & ‘Libertarian Populism’

Can the GOP be pro-worker and anti-government? A bill that showers subsidies on agribusiness is the opposite.

One step forward, two steps back. The Republican Party is like an alcoholic in recovery, with periods of sobriety punctuated by long, destructive benders as it once again falls off the wagon.

In June, a critical mass of House conservatives helped vote down a nearly $1 trillion farm bill that merged all the protectionism and cronyism that dominates modern agriculture policy with the worst excesses of the food stamp program.

Republican leaders were reportedly very unhappy, but the sweetheart deals for the sugar industry and federal crop insurance program are two corporate welfare programs that are totally counterproductive for the taxpayer. Moreover, while it may make political sense to link food stamps and farm subsidies, the economic justification is less obvious.

Defeating the bloated farm bill gave Republicans an opportunity to separate these spending items so they could then trim and reform them both. Without nutrition programs for the poor making up 80 percent of the price tag, welfare for Archer Daniels Midland would receive more scrutiny.

So naturally, Republicans followed a moment of clarity by taking a nasty spill off the wagon again.

Last week, the House passed a farm bill containing all the agribusiness largesse of the one it voted down in June. In fact, the crop insurance program and the sugar subsidies were made permanent. But there was no money for food stamps, combining a fiscal disaster with a political one.

Republicans voted for this monstrosity by a margin of 216 to 12. To be sure, some felt pressure from the leadership to vote for the bill since Eric Cantor and company had magnanimously heeded their request to separate out the food stamp spending. And absent some congressional action, the country would have reverted back to the price controls and central planning of the Truman-era Agriculture Act of 1949.

But the takeaway is that the Republicans once again favor welfare for the rich and politically connected while opposing it for the poor and others unrepresented by K Street lobbyists. Needless to say, it’s unclear that naked redistribution to benefit GOP clients is preferable to such redistribution on behalf of Democratic constituencies.

It’s one of the reasons Newt Gingrich’s 2012 critique of a “food stamp president” rang so hollow. Gingrich tried to make an obvious point that a measure of economic success is how many people are receiving paychecks rather than food stamps. But Republicans too often lack credibility on this point, making it easy for Democrats to suggest his complaints were just racist code words.

When David Stockman was Ronald Reagan’s budget director, he urged Republicans to attack weak claims and not just weak claimants. When Gingrich first became speaker of the House, his young Republican majority boasted an ambitious agenda of cuts to corporate welfare. Yet in practice the party still too often defaults to what New York Times columnist Ross Douthat paraphrases as “small government for thee, but not for me.”

Indeed, the Gingrichites’ reforms of Aid to Families with Dependent Children endured longer than its more circuitous attack on farm subsidies. And for all the sound and fury about the Obama administration “gutting” welfare reform, the GOP’s attempt to rein in the agriculture subsidies was largely undone by subsequent Republican Congresses.

And yet an alternative does exist. Some call it libertarian or free-market populism: smash the alliance of K Street, Wall Street, and Pennsylvania Avenue. End the incestuous relationship between big government and big business. Close the revolving door and tear down the political privileges that accrue to the wealthy and powerful.

This is a populism that can largely be pursued within the confines of constitutionally limited government, as it involves ending bailouts and turning off the spigot of federal subsidies that flow to private companies. Instead let a genuine free market with greater equality of opportunity bloom.

Sometimes it will require new laws to unravel decades of state-managed corporatism. This would likely include breaking up the big banks, implementing tax reform, and imposing transparency regulations on the people who would serve in government and the large companies seeking its benefits.

Simply arguing in these terms would lead to some level of openness. Obamacare is sold as an attack on the big insurance companies, when in fact insurers, pharmaceuticals, and the hospitals were all intimately involved in its design and promotion. (It’s not surprising that the employer mandate is on hold while the individual mandate is proceeding right on schedule.)

General Electric, General Motors, and—as even the hapless Mitt Romney recognized—Solyndra are the new welfare queens.

Libertarian populists have their blind spots. They are still too fixated on tax rates that remain far from the Laffer Curve’s prohibitive range while neglecting the payroll taxes many working-class taxpayers watch consume their paychecks.

While more tolerant than some of the conservatives who came before them, they are also more naïve about the consequences of mass immigration and family breakdown for limited government. While rightly concerned about rent-seeking, libertarian populists may exaggerate the number of voters who care about the Export-Import Bank.

But the idea largely remains untried, save for a few symbolic measures pushed by congressional backbenchers. Paul Krugman may absurdly flail away at libertarian populists without addressing any of their actual arguments. Yet free-market populism is as absent from the GOP agenda as it is from the Times op-ed page.

The GOP stands to gain from the discovery that small is beautiful. If only it can break its destructive addiction to all things big.

W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?



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