Why Liberals and Progressives Should Care About The Government’s Raisin Cartel
This morning, I posted a link to a Washington Post article about Marvin Horne, a California grape farmer who is fighting the federal government’s efforts to expropriate a portion of his crop.
Understandably, a majority of responses to that post came from libertarian-ish tumblrs.
I suspect that’s ~80% a result of hipsterlibertarian’s reblogging the post and ~20% a consequence of liberals not giving a damn about federal marketing orders when there are so many other pressing issues to confront. Which is too bad.
There are a lot of reasons why high liberals — not just liberaltarians or bleeding heart libertarians or what have you — should care about America’s neo-feudal agriculture policy:
1. Policy: It’s not about big vs. small government, it’s about economic privilege
As liberals, our battle isn’t to create a bigger or more activist government, but to combat entrenched privilege. Oftentimes, it takes government action to ameliorate the injustices that have been created by the free market, the genetic lottery, and other forces beyond any one individual’s control. In these cases, we advocate for government programs that redistribute resources from the relatively privileged to the less fortunate.
But there are plenty of instances when the government itself has created a class of privileged insiders.
In this case, the government has decreed that farmers must reserve a certain portion of their crop, which they may not sell on the open market. The percentage of the crop that must be reserved each year is established by the USDA, based on the recommendations of a committee of industry representatives, consisting of 46 members of industry and one member of the public. For the portion of the crop that’s been reserved, farmers are either not compensated at all or are paid below the cost of production, to say nothing of market value.
The winners in this arrangement are large raisin producers, especially the 46 members of the committee, who can manipulate the price of raisins. They’re happy to give up a part of their crop — as long as they can force others to do the same — in exchange for a higher price for their produce.
The losers? Small farmers who can’t afford to give up 40% of their crop for free. And consumers who are paying more for raisins than they could be. The current policy places the weight of the government on the side of the big industry players against small-time producers and consumers. Liberals should be against that.
It’s true, freeing the raisins does not a just society make. But there are plenty of other cases where the same logic of government-entrenched privilege prevails.
Commodity crop subsidies flow to wealthy landowners. Occupational licensing rules that prevent dental hygienists from working independently enrich already-wealthy dentists at the expense of hygienists and patients. Ex-felons are kept in poverty by regulations forbidding them from hundreds of occupations that have little to do with the crimes they committed. These are economic injustices as much as those created by an unbridled market. They should be liberal concerns too.
2. Politics: Dumb laws poison the liberal project
Like Barney Frank and Barack Obama say, government “is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.” But if that thing happens to be taking a bunch of raisins from a farmer, not compensating him, and then letting those raisins molder in some California warehouse, normal people are going to be justly skeptical of the next great liberal project to improve their standard of living.
3. Legal Strategy: Hard cases make bad law
Advocates of expansive federal power, as many liberals are, should not want cases akin to the raisin debacle to appear anywhere near the current Supreme Court.
Much of the social welfare state relies on an expansive reading of the Constitution’s Commerce Clause. And for better or worse, that expansive reading was set by precedents in ag-related cases, which gave the federal government vast powers over anything related to interstate commerce.
The Wickard v. Filburns of the world are the legal framework on which much of the modern state rests, but if we keep giving Scalia and company sympathetic claimants, eventually five justices are going to narrow the construction of the Commerce Clause to the point where federal programs almost universally-admired by liberals become threatened.
Better to repeal federal market orders legislatively than risk taking a huge constitutional hit somewhere down the line.
Free-market raisins are not going to become a center-left cause célèbre, but whether for reasons of ideology, law, or political posturing, liberals should take notice.