How Republicans Justify Cutting Food Stamps While Boosting Farm Subsidies

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Republicans have been pressing to roll back the dramatic expansion of food stamps that has taken place over the last five years -- 46 million people are now on the program, up from 26 million in 2007, and the average benefit has increased by more than a third. At the same time, they supported a lot of money for farmers. Jonathan Chait asks a good question:

I'd prefer to abolish agriculture subsidies completely while keeping in place (or boosting) food rations for the poor. A libertarian might want to abolish both programs, a socialist might want to keep both. I'd disagree but attribute the disagreement to philosophical differences. What possible basis can be found to justify preserving subsidies for affluent farmers while cutting them for the poor? What explanation offers itself other than the party's commitment to waging class war?

Being a libertarian myself, and inalterably opposed to farm subsidies, I enjoyed this not-so-subtle tweaking. But it seems worth trying to answer the question, rather than merely marinating in our own moral and logical superiority. Is there a way that we can explain supporting Medicare while cutting Medicaid, Social Security but not welfare checks, farm subsidies but not food stamps? For readers of Jonathan Haidt's amazing book, "The Righteous Mind," the answer should be "yes." It lies in reciprocity. You'll find an extensive discussion of this in my forthcoming book (she mentioned casually), but for now let's concentrate on Haidt.

Jonathan Haidt's original research led him to divide our moral intuitions into five groups, one of which was "fairness." But when he wrote that liberals cared more about fairness than conservatives, he received an outpouring of vitriol from conservatives. They cared a lot about fairness, they protested -- and they thought it was very unfair for people to be able to live without working. Haidt realized he was dealing with two very different conceptions of fairness: one of which had to do with equality, and the other of which had to do with reciprocity. "Fair" is a complicated word that appears unique to English (for more on its dizzying strangeness, I suggest you read economist Bart Wilson's piece, edited by me, from several years back). Different groups have invested it with very different meanings, which can make it hard to see how your political opponents can possibly believe what they do.

So here's one reason Republicans might support farm subsidies, but not food stamps: the sense that you have to do something to get them. Ethanol subsidies are wildly distortive -- bad for the environment, bad for the poor and bad for the U.S. budget. But the people collecting them do actually have to grow some corn, or make some ethanol, which is then used by other people. They're not being given money just for breathing. If you care a lot about reciprocity -- and Haidt's evidence shows that conservatives do -- then this matters a lot.

Lots of the rule changes that have driven the expansion of food stamps seem aimed at enabling people to collect them without working; the work requirements have been relaxed, and eligibility has been expanded to able-bodied adults without children. It's not crazy to view this with alarm. I'm broadly in sympathy with the idea that benefits should be tightly linked to employment, unless you're so disabled that you really can't work. That's one reason I'd rather see a massive temporary jobs program, along the lines of the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration, than endlessly extended unemployment benefits.

This doesn't make me want to support farm programs while getting rid of food stamps: I'd still like to kill the farm subsidies, and given the weakness of the current job market, I'm guessing that a lot of the unemployed folks on food stamps are people who can't find jobs, rather than people who won't work. But you don't have to be an amoral monster to disagree with me; just someone who places a different moral weight on reciprocity than I do.

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