Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Keeping rent-seekers fed

This is quite old now, but I want to go back to it; quite often, I read something and my thoughts on it don’t come together until much later. Some time ago at Hit and Run, there was a post commenting on this New York Times article (registration required.)

The gist of the article is that some health groups are unhappy about federal farm subsidies to grain growers, which they claim encourage bad eating habits by encouraging the production of things like high-fructose corn syrup. Their solution is to start subsidizing fruit and vegetable growers, too.

These groups’ desire to fight bad effects of statism with more statism is unfortunate but not really surprising- that’s the instinctive response of most people, and it’s to be expected that this would be especially true of health advocacy groups. There’s something that is interesting about this, though.

I'm embarrassed to say that the rent-seeking opportunities created by the nanny state had not really occurred to me until recently. I say I’m embarrassed because it should have been obvious- expansions of government power frequently create opportunities for politically connected economic interests, and that doesn’t stop being true just because the expansion is in the area of “personal” rather than “economic” liberty.

The possibilities are considerable, especially when you look beyond direct subsidies. For example, we often hear proposals for “fat taxes” and the like, to discourage the purchase of unhealthy food. I am quite confident that such taxes, if created, would quickly create a new battleground, as company lobbyists fought to have their opponents’ products taxed and their own excluded. Restrictions on advertising, also frequently proposed, would create a similar struggle over precisely which products can be advertised and which can’t be. Tariffs could be increased on foreign food products to “fight obesity.” Whether or not a given food counts as “junk” is far less objective than, say, whether or not a product contains tobacco, so there’s plenty of room for careful manipulation of restrictions by whichever food conglomerates get the upper hand.

I’m just an amateur, of course; I’m sure people accustomed to manipulating the machinery of state for a living could, and will, multiply my list of ideas many times over. Big business’s past successes at exploiting the coercive schemes of moral crusaders shows no shortage of skill and creativity in that department.

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