The Surprising Popularity of Farm Subsidies

Well-known bigot Steven Walt offers up another one of his tawdry conspiracy theories in which U.S. policy is the result of special interest lobbying:

Like other industrial countries, the United States subsidizes a host of agricultural products and erects various trade barriers against foreign imports. This happens because the farm lobby is defending the narrow interests of the farm sector and many democratic systems give small groups (in this case farmers or agribusiness) disproportionate influence. (It’s the usual story: A small group reaps the benefits of this policy while the costs are dispersed across the whole population). This policy makes food more expensive, encourages farmers to grow the wrong crops, squanders energy, and hinders economic development in poorer countries, thereby contributing to political instability. These policies also make it much harder to negotiate multilateral trade deals that would raise prosperity world-wide. So although nearly every detached observer thinks the policy is wrong, they also know that the political power of farm interests (both here and abroad) makes it excruciatingly difficult to change course.

No, actually, this is just what everyone thinks and not a conspiracy theory at all. Indeed, “everyone” thinks it to such an overwhelming extent that we may be overlooking the extent to which lots of people think terrible agriculture policy is actually a good idea. Here’s a recent Pew poll on various aspects of Barack Obama’s budget, a document which, among other things, proposes slicing agricultural benefits:

On the issue of reducing agricultural subsidies, more Republicans say it is the wrong thing than the right thing (57% vs. 34%), while Democrats and independents are more evenly divided.

It would be interesting to know the exact wording of the question here, which unfortunately I can’t find. Still, it seems to indicate that this is a bit more than a question of a narrow group blocking change. What may be happening is that since farm subsidies have passionate defenders in both parties, a wide swathe of people are accustomed to seeing them endorsed by leaders they trust.