Farm Subsidies: The Courage to Say No

Most people are shocked when they hear about problems with farm subsidies today- how they drive up food prices for the poor, how they harm our country's ability to export, and how millionaire farmers get millions more from the government. Will enough politicians in the new Congress challenge the many highly paid farm lobbyists and do the right thing?

Exactly 100 years ago, a man from Michigan mustered the integrity and the courage to say no on this very issue. His name was J. Sterling Morton, and he was Secretary of Agriculture under President Grover Cleveland.

Morton grew up in Monroe, Michigan, where his grandfather and uncle edited the Monroe Advocate. With their encouragement, Morton avidly read the writings of economist Adam Smith and statesman Thomas Jefferson. He became a staunch proponent of their ideas of free markets and limited government by the time he enrolled at a seminary in Albion and later at the University of Michigan. The notion that no free society could survive if government started redistributing the people's wealth became a lifelong guiding principle for Morton.

After college, Morton worked a year for the Detroit Free Press before leaving Michigan to run the Nebraska City News. As editor, Morton wrote about the virtues of free markets. Voluntarism, not more centralized political power, was Morton's solution to problems; he originated Arbor Day in 1872 to encourage private citizens to plant trees.

In the late 1890s, the Democrats were the party of free trade, and Morton was three times the Democratic candidate for Governor of Nebraska. In 1892, when Grover Cleveland recaptured the White House for the Democrats, he chose J. Sterling Morton to be his Secretary of Agriculture and gave him a free hand to liberate farming from the federal dole.

Morton proved to be as principled a free market advocate as the President who appointed him. In his four years as Secretary, he chopped almost 20 percent from his department's budget. He fired unproductive bureaucrats, starting with a man who held the job of federal rainmaker. Then he slashed the travel budget: if farmers wanted to hear a spokesman from Washington, they would have to pay the bill to send him.

If the Department of Agriculture is to be conducted in the spirit of paternalism, the sooner it is abolished the better for the United States, Morton declared. Accordingly, he cut farm subsidies wherever possible. He reduced the government's role in beet sugar production with these words: Those who raise corn should not be taxed to encourage those who desire to raise beets. The power to tax was never vested in a Government for the purpose of building up one class at the expense of other classes.

In 1895, Morton ended the free seed program. For 60 years, the government sent free seed to farmers. But many farmers didn't even use the seeds; in fact, fewer than one person per thousand even acknowledged receiving them. Is it a function of government to make gratuitous distribution of any material thing? Morton asked. He called free seeds a gratuity, paid for by money raised from all the people, and bestowed upon a few people.

Those who favored subsidies and business as usual were aghast at Morton. They wrote him vitriolic letters and filled newspapers with their attacks on him. Many urged President Cleveland to fire Morton, but the President was elated with the cost savings his agriculture secretary was achieving. This was the President who had once vetoed a $10,000 appropriation for drought-stricken farmers in Texas by declaring, . . . though the people support the government, the government should not support the people.

Morton himself challenged his critics. He called the pro-subsidy Granger Society a bunko establishment. He urged a farmer in Iowa to quit plowing with preambles, planting with resolutions, and gathering by legislative enactment. His battles with lobbyists and the millions of dollars he saved became almost legendary in Washington.

When Morton left Washington in 1897, the subsidy crowd slowly returned. Free seeds were again distributed. By the 1930s, the federal government was paying some farmers not to produce at all. Today, billions are doled out to subsidize a wide range of farm commodities, and it seems farmers sometimes produce as much for the government as they do for the market.

Many agricultural economists believe that farm subsidy programs actually increase instability in the industry because the rules governing them change so often. The experience of New Zealand is instructive: after that country abolished all farm subsidies in 1986 with a mere eight months notice, the farm economy improved and output rose.

As Congress tries to muster the courage to challenge the government's dubious role in agriculture, its members ought to look to Michigan's J. Sterling Morton for their inspiration.