The Case for Redistribution
by Peter Barnes
Part Three (in case you missed Parts 1-2, you can get them from the Archive)
To achieve these goals a multitude of reforms should be carried out. First and most importantly, small-scale farming must be made economically viable, so that present small farmers can survive and new ones get started. Unless it is done, there is no point in changing landholding patterns to favor smaller units.
There’s no secret to making small-scale farming viable; it can be accomplished by eliminating the favors bestowed upon large farms. Federal tax laws that encourage corporate farming for tax-loss and speculative purposes should be changed, even if this means closing the capital gains loophole. Labor laws should guarantee a minimum wage to farmworkers equal to that of other workers, and should make the knowing employment of illegal aliens a crime punishable by imprisonment. This would put an end to one of the large landholders’ major competitive advantages their ability to exploit great numbers of poor people and allow self-employed farmers to derive more value from their own labor.
Subsidy programs, too, should be revised to the disadvantage of big growers. When farm subsidies began during the New Deal, they were intended to help the impoverished small farmer. But because they were pegged to total marketings and total acreage rather than to personal income, they wound up lining the pockets of the wealthy. If farm subsidies are continued — as they should be in order to stabilize farm income — they ought to be strongly weighted in favor of smallness. No farmer should receive subsidies for crops grown (or not grown) on land in excess of a certain acreage, and payments should be graduated downward, somewhat like an income tax in reverse. Per unit payments to individual farmers should decrease, in other words, as the number of subsidized units increases.) Alternatively, subsidies could be completely detached from crops and related to income instead. Farmers could sell on the open market, with federal payments making up the difference, if any, between earnings and a minimum livable income.
Also essential to the future viability of small-scale farming is some protection against conglomerates. There is no way a small farmer can compete against an oil company, or against a vertically integrated giant like Tenneco which not only farms tens of thousands of acres but also makes its own farm machinery and chemicals, and processes, packages and distributes its own foods. Such conglomerates aren’t hurt by a low price for crops; what they lose in farming they can pick up in processing or distributing or, for that matter, in oil. The small farmer, on the other hand, has no outside income and no tolerance for soft spots. What he needs is legislation that would prohibit corporations or individuals with more than $50,000, say, in nonfarming income from engaging in farming — in effect, a forceful antitrust policy for agriculture.
Once small-scale farming is made viable, the second major area for change involves redistribution of land — the kind of peaceful social restructuring that the United States imposed upon Japan after World War II and has urged upon dozens of other nations in Asia and Latin America.
The guiding principles behind redistribution are that land should belong to those who work and live on it, and that holdings should be of reasonable, not feudal proportions. These are not revolutionary concepts; America recognized them in the Pre-emption, Homestead and Reclamation Acts, and is merely being asked to renew that recognition.
End of Part Three.
This essay is part of a series written by Peter Barnes for The New Republic magazine in 1971-72. We think you’ll be pleased — and perhaps shocked — to see how timely and insightful the essays are for today. Each essay will be republished, in installments, by The Progress Report.