As for ethanol, this is a program that cost taxpayers $7.7 billion last year while driving up food and gasoline prices — and that causes more environmental damage than it solves. The national-security argument is far more slogan than reality. Ethanol’s impact on oil imports is minimal, less than 1 percent according to some studies. We could plant subsidized corn on every square inch of available land, and we would not significantly reduce our reliance on imported oil (most of which actually comes from such hostile countries as Canada).
Unsupportable as farm subsidies are, they are part of a larger context that will continue to bedevil Republicans as they try to cut federal spending. It is always easier to cut the other guy’s subsidy. And some of the most deeply “red” states are among the biggest collectors of federal largess. In 2010, solidly Republican states such as Alaska, Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Virginia were among the largest recipients of per capita federal spending. That means any serious attempt to cut federal spending is going to require Republicans to take on their own constituencies.
Farm subsidies will provide an early test of whether Republicans can do this. So far, the results are disappointing.
— Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution.