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Being Paid to Do Nothing

December 8, 2010

Yesterday I wrote that long-term unemployment benefits was tantamount to paying people to remain idle.

That reminded me of the government’s policy since the 1930s of paying farmers to leave their land idle. Then, Roosevelt’s idea was that by creating artificial food shortages, prices would rise and recovery would happen.  It didn’t work. It created hardship all around. It was administered by the National Recovery Administration, which was eventually declared unconstitutional. The whole story is admirably recorded in Amity Schlaes’ book, The Forgotten Man, which I’ve reviewed and highly recommend.

Incredibly, federal subsidies for idle land remain. I have a friend in Oklahoma who owns 240 acres of land. The land was an active farmstead until around 1949. Since then it has remained fallow and has become overgrown with cedars. He’s removing the cedars because he wants to use the land for recreation and for hunting. The Department of Agriculture is paying him something over $200 per year not to grow wheat on a specific 22 acres of his land.

Please note: he is not a farmer, has no intention of growing wheat and in fact doesn’t know how to. Of course, if he did want to, he could: just not on those 22 acres. The money goes toward real estate taxes so he’s happy to accept it but wouldn’t be all that upset if the program were ended.

So what’s the point of the program? Is the government still trying to prop up the price of wheat? How does the government, which claims moral superiority over we poor benighted capitalist citizens, justify keeping productive land idle in a world were there is still starvation and malnutrition?

Ironically, the government also pays land owners in western Oklahoma to cut the cedars; they’re invasive and use a lot of ground water. In effect, they’re paying the owners once to make the land able to grow crops again and a second time not to grow them. Can anything be crazier than that?

But wait: there’s more. Despite being paid by these government programs, my friend’s behavior hasn’t been affected one bit. As I wrote earlier, he had no intention of growing wheat–and he would have removed the cedars anyway to improve the habitat of the game birds he wants to attract.

What has been affected? We have spent taxpayer dollars to no good purpose. The government has robbed Peter to pay Paul, as my mother would say; or redistributed wealth, as the socialist economists would say. The two ways of stating it reflect opinions on whether this is a good thing or not.

Enough! It is not a good thing. It is not the business of a Constitutionally limited government to redistribute wealth according to its whims. My friend, though a recipient of this largess, is quite conservative and heartily agrees.

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