This Was My Take As Well: Cut Farm Subsidies, Not Food Stamps

First, as many of you may have guessed, the "massive cuts" in food stamps over the next 10 years proposed by House Republicans are basically just a modest reduction in their rate of growth.  All attempts to slow the spending growth in any government program will always be treated by the media as Armageddon, which is why government spending seldom slows (see: Sequester).

But I have been amazed through this whole deal that Republicans want to extract a pound (actually probably just an ounce or so) of flesh out of the Food Stamp program but explicitly left the rest of the farm bill with all of its bloated subsidies alone.  Henry Olson asks the same question at NRO.

I will add one other observation about food stamps that is sure to have just about everyone disagreeing with me.  Of late, Republicans have released a number of reports on food stamp fraud, showing people converting food stamps to cash, presumably so they can buy things with the money that food stamps are allowed to be used for.

Once upon a time, maybe 30 years ago in my more Conservative days, I would get all worked up by the same things.  Look at those guys, we give them money for food and they buy booze with it!  It must be stopped.  Since that time, I suppose I never really revisited this point of view until I was watching the recent stories on food stamp fraud.

But what I began thinking about was this:  As a libertarian, I always say that the government needs to respect and keep its hands off the decision-making of individuals.  If people make bad choices, paraphrasing from the HBO show Deadwood, then let them go to hell however they choose.  And, more often than not, it turns out that when you really look, people are not necessarily making what from the outside looks like a bad choice -- they have information, incentives, pressures, and preferences we folks sitting in our tidy Washington offices, chauffeured to work every day, may not understand.

So if we are going to give people charity - money to survive on when poor and out of work - shouldn't we respect them and their choices?  Why attach a myriad of conditions and surveillance to the use of the funds?  Of course, this is an opinion that puts me way out of the mainstream.  Liberals will treat these folks as potential victims that must be guided paternally, and Conservatives will treat them as potential fraudsters who must be watched carefully.  I think either of these attitudes are insidious, and it is better to treat these folks as adults who need help.

  • HenryBowman419

    So if we are going to give people charity - money to survive on when poor and out of work - shouldn't we respect them and their choices?

    This is precisely why "we" (that is, the government) should not be providing money to the poor or to those out of work. Private organizations who choose to do so can do as hey please.

  • Morlock Publishing

    In the end, I agree with you. If we're going to have welfare at all, just hand over cash and let people buy food, vodka, or meth with it.

    The other side of the argument, though, is not "we know better what's best for them" - it's "we're willing to pay taxes to keep people from starving, but we're not willing to pay taxes to help people party".

    As I said, I'd prefer an all-cash grant (maybe even a negative income tax, a la Friedman), but that's a question of pragmatic tactics, to defund and defeat the permanent bueacracy, not an endorsement of the idea that it's OK to pay taxes so that others can buy vodka.

  • Nehemiah

    They can make bad choices with their own money. John Roberts of Fox News interviewed some surfer dude in southern CA who was working the food stamp angle. Sushi, seafood, booze and playing his guitar with his buds.

    I think Grover Cleveland had it right when it came to the role of government relative to charity, they don't have one. Lots of veto's for that guy, God Bless him.

    I am with you on farm subsidies for the same reason.

  • roystgnr

    If someone is buying luxury goods, it's hard to conclude they "need help" without either using a very loose definition of "need" or a much less materialistic definition of "help". You don't have to be a temperance crusader to be annoyed at someone buying booze with *others'* money. Don't think of food stamp restrictions as an attempt to punish vice, but as a way of dissuading false positives: people who don't actually need us to take away others' money and give it to them, but who would pass our imperfect qualifications tests for our programs which do that anyway.

    You're absolutely right about your main point, though. How and how much to help the poor is a thorny question, but there's essentially no ethical theory which will lead to the conclusion that we should cut back on food stamps but not *also* come to the stronger conclusion that we should first eliminate farm subsidies and other corporate welfare.

    (the only exception is a combination of consequentialism with public choice economics: if you know that voting against farm subsidies is unpopular enough with your backers or constituents to get you kicked out of office, you might do the wrong thing under the belief that your replacement would have done the same but that you'll be able to do more good on other issues)

  • lelnet

    They have the absolute right to buy whatever they like...with their OWN money.

    A case might be made that reducing the restrictions would require less overall bureaucracy...I don't presently believe that to be true, but I'm willing to hear the evidence. Anything that results in a net reduction of government, I count as a win.

    As for the farm subsidies, absolutely cut those as well. Farmers have no more intrinsic right to profit from mass robbery than anybody else does.

  • mahtso

    So the people who get the money are free to choose, but the people who provide the money are not? The blogger's approach would be fine if "we" also get to choose: whether to give people our money.

  • Me too

    My customers trade me money for work. I do what they want for the money agreed upon. Simple enough. I have no problem asking for the same in return from people receiving welfare.

  • slocum

    I agree with both points -- and you might also want to note that one of the reasons we provide food stamps rather cash is that it's yet another ag subsidy (forcing people to spend more money on food and less on other things). It's the same reason that U.S. foreign aid is often given in the form of agricultural products rather than cash: http://www.iar-gwu.org/node/473

  • norse

    Couldn't agree more, if only for the reason that this would drastically reduce administrative overhead. The cheaper alternative for folks who'd like to control consumption of the poor would be free shelter/food/entertainment access akin to the southern American public kitchen programs. Not exactly the American way.

  • http://togetrichisglorious.blogspot.com/ Colin77

    Think I have to part ways with you on the let them buy whatever angle. The other week I was at the grocery store and the guy in front of me used his food stamp debit card to buy some stuff, then pulled out a $20 to buy beer. This guy claims he needs my tax dollars to put food on the table but has money for beer? What a joke. Not the first time I have seen this dynamic either. People can do whatever they want with their own money. With mine? I have no problem with some strings being attached.

  • Not Sure

    "So if we are going to give people charity - money to survive on when poor and out of work - shouldn't we respect them and their choices?"
    Got to disagree here. When I have to help buy Haagen Dasz (not going to check the spelling) ice cream for "poor" people who are just rying to survive, I damn well expect that I should have some say in the matter.

  • marque2

    If it were their money I agree with your POV they can do anything with it they want - if it is someone else's money there can be strings attached and the receiver needs to abide by the strings.

    I mean would you say the same about a bank loan? Well we didn't decide to buy the house after all and used the money on booze. Would you say - well if the bank gives the money - you know they need to let the recipient do they want.

    What about private donations - the Salvation army gives food and shelter and expects volunteer work in return, as part of a back to work program (to teach basic work skills to these folks) should the Salvation Army just give the money and say nothing?

    I think you need to think about your position a bit. Food stamps isn't just free money from the government - it is a charity program with stipulations. If the folks don't want to live by those stipulations, they should not be on the program and should find some other program that will let them do what they want, or earn their own funds to purchase what they want.

    Note this isn't a debate about the value of food stamps. I would get rid of them if I could.

  • marque2

    There is no administrative overhead, that is why folks can buy just about anything with the EBT card any more. They don't even have to fake buying beer, because they are allowed to take cash out with a purchase. There are folks who buy single grapes for a penny so they can take out 20 bucks from the card - oh and they get mad when they happen to choose a larger grape and it is 2 cents.

    In California it is even less stringent, and for awhile you could use any teller machine to get money out. It was discovered that a significant portion of funds was being taken out at Indian Casinos, and there were even transactions on cruise ships. CA has since blocked teller machines at these venues. But that just means you get the money at 7 - 11 first and then go to the Casino.

    The sad part was liberals defending the program on local radio stations. The story was - Casinos are safe places to get the money, if you don't allow it the poor folk will get mugged trying to use an outdoor teller, like the rest of us use.

  • markm

    The modern definition of "poor" (for the USA) is not being able to buy as many luxury goods as most people...

  • markm

    Food stamp levels are set for lazy idiots - otherwise there really would be millions of starving children, because their parents are too stupid to shop for bargains and too lazy to cook good meals from scratch. Instead, the rates are set so that nitwits that buy overpriced snacks and TV dinners only run out a few days before the end of the month. But that means that for those that do check prices and cook from scratch, the full food stamps for a family of four will feed six to eight people well, including plenty of red meat, fruits, and vegetables. Immigrants and second-generation Americans who hold to their ethnic cuisines could probably stretch the money even further, and use no more than half their allotment.

    So what do you expect them to do with the excess?

  • Rob JM

    Welfare payments should be viewed as a form of insurance rather than a burden on society. Your trading individual wealth for security (less crime).
    The purpose of food stamps is to prevent the kids starving due to the parents spending their money on their addictions. I would be in favour of a mixed payment of food stamps/cash. Here in australia we have a cash payment system and a just starting to see some food stamp trial with good success.

  • frankania

    I prefer pure non-govt charity. If a person needing something has no family, friends, skills to help him, then of what use is he to the society? If I see people honestly struggling, I help them however I can.
    Govt takes money from producers and under tons of red-tape bureaucracy, gives it to those who fulfill some list of perogatives.

  • Prirat

    These cuts to [rate of increase?] welfare programs remind me of the time of the Contract with America. One of the first cuts was to the School Lunch program. Could the Republicans have chosen a program easier for the Democrats to demagogue about? This is all political theater, sound and fury signifying nothing. How about cutting foreign aid? Or subsidies to Big Agriculture? Why is it when various departments are screaming about the "SEQUESTER!", that the Federal Government can afford to grant armored cars to myriad local police departments? Other departments can afford to buy billions of rounds of ammo? It's all lies.

  • obloodyhell

    }}} This Was My Take As Well: Cut Farm Subsidies, Not Food Stamps

    Cut 'em all. Let God sort 'em out.

    Give me the knife, I'll do it. >:-/

  • obloodyhell

    }}} You're trading individual wealth for security (less crime).

    Sooo.... it's basically paying off extortionists, then?

    LOL, no thanks, I'll just keep my guns instead, n'kay?

    All forms of government-sponsored "charity" are nothing but forced cash transfer payments from me to someone else I don't know and have no say over.

    So basically it's me working for the benefit of someone else, with no say in the matter, how much gets taken from me, nor how it is used for their benefit.

    There's a word for that... what is it...?

    Hmmm.

    Hmmm.

    Oh, yeah!!

    "Slavery".

  • obloodyhell

    }}} As a faux libertarian, I always say that the government needs to respect and keep its hands off the decision-making of individuals.

    Of late, Warren, you seem to often be missing an important adjective in your self-descriptor, added back in above for you.

    It's amazing how often of late you exclaim you're a libertarian even as you're not even standing on a libertarian position -- not even close.

    Because it's damned sure obvious that the right the government needs to respect and decision-making it should be keeping its hand off of is the charitable impulse itself. There is literally NO way to justify, as a libertarian, stealing money from Paul to pay Peter, regardless of what Peter plans to do with it. Mutual Aid Societies USED to do this job just fine, while discouraging the grasshoppers living at the expense of the ants, something government bureaucrats have no interest in nor concern for AT ALL -- it's not THEIR money.