I recently saw another questionable bumper sticker: “No farms, no food.”
Well, yeah, I guess that’s right. But really, this bumper sticker isn’t trying to state the obvious. More than likely, this is a bumper sticker supporting government intervention for farmers (especially considering all of the other pro-big government stickers on this person’s tailgate). So the question is this: Do we need the government involved in farms to keep food on our tables?
First, let me tackle the most obvious part. Like my article about government keeping the water clean, does anyone actually think that if left to our own devices we’d starve ourselves to death? (I’m honestly having a little bit of trouble writing anything more at this point because is there really anything else to say?) No, there’s good money involved in the products and services that everyone needs because no matter what, they’re going to be items that are consumed for as long as there are people around.
There have been a few times in my conversations with people that I have heard “We have to protect our farmers. They’re the backbone of the country.” Okay, so buy food. If you keep your cupboards stocked, that should keep the farmers in business pretty well.
I know, these people mean that we need to provide subsidies and other protections for farmers to keep them in business. If the government didn’t put price floors on agricultural products, send subsidies to farmers, and flat out pay some farmers not to farm, there might be some farmers that go out of business. If that’s the case, then that means that the market is trying to tell us that there are too many farmers out there! Why is it that farming is the holy grail of occupations? As an engineer, if I couldn’t find a job in the engineering field, should the government pay me not to engineer or subsidize my job? After all, good luck living in a world without engineers.
But that’s preposterous. If I can’t get a job as an engineer, it’s because we don’t need me to work as one. The same goes with farming. If you can’t produce enough to pay your bills without the help of the government taking money out of the market that could be used for other businesses and technology, then maybe you might want to try another line of work.
Government’s involvement in farming also harms anyone who buys food (everyone). By putting price floors on crops, the government artificially keeps the prices of food high. This is presented as a way of keeping farmers in business, but this does not allow for potentially cheaper prices—it hurts the consumer’s ability to get the most out of their money. The ethanol mandate requires a certain ratio of biofuels to be blended with the gasoline you buy to fill up your car. By requiring this blend to be used, it drives up demand and, all else equal, raises the price of the corn you eat (and all of the corn by-products that you may or may not realize you eat). Since many stock animals are fed with corn, it also raises the prices on various meats.
Another argument I’ve gotten is the “If we don’t keep the small farmers in business, we’ll lose all of our farmland and will never get it back.”
If companies did start to purchase farmland and turn it into whatever else, what would happen? If it went to the extreme and all farms ceased to exist, we would be forced to once again be hunter-gatherers and engage in subsistence farming. Our lives would be spent just trying to keep from starving. But over the years, we’ve added technological advancements to agriculture. We were willing to pay money for other people to grow food for us because we wanted to use our time to do other things. There would be no overall benefits to subsistence farming and one of the only ways for humans to progress as a society is to eliminate subsistence farming, so I’m going to reject the idea that we’d return to it in a free market.
Maybe we would lose a little bit of farmland though. And that’s fine because all throughout human history, we’ve gotten better at harvesting more produce on smaller parcels of land. Anyway, as farmland became scarcer, its value would increase, so companies that wanted to farm would be willing to pay prime dollar for the land over someone who might want to construct something like a housing development.
What are these big businesses that are out to get your money doing during all of this by buying farmland? Well, they’re out to get your money, of course! As mentioned before, there’s a ton of money to be made in the food industry, so why would people just give up the chance at it?
It’s in everyone’s best interest to support farms, but that’s doesn’t mean it can’t be done voluntarily. We need to eat, but we don’t want to spend 12 hours a day five or six or seven days a week putting food on our tables, so we pay others to do it for us. We desire to increase our wealth, so we pursue work that will help us achieve that goal while we strive to keep the things that sustain our lives simple, cheap, and easy. As long as this remains the case, I don’t think we have to worry about the farms.