The Case for Redistribution
by Peter Barnes
Part Four – Conclusion (in case you missed Parts 1-3, you can get them from the Archive)
A convenient place to start is with enforcement of the Reclamation Act of 1902, which provides that large landholders in the West who accept subsidized water must agree to sell their federally irrigated holdings in excess of 160 acres at pre-water prices within ten years. The Reclamation Act has never been properly enforced for a variety of reasons. One is that, through one stratagem or another, large landholders have escaped having to sell their excess lands. Another is that even in the few cases where large landowners have agreed to sell, their prices have been so high, and terms so stiff, that only the wealthy could afford to buy. Occasionally, as in parts of the San Joaquin valley at the moment, prewater prices as approved by the Bureau of Reclamation are so out of line higher, in fact than prevailing market prices that even wealthy persons have not seen fit to purchase excess lands put up for sale under the law.
To assure not only the sale of excess landholdings, but also their availability at prices that persons of limited means can afford, Rep. Robert Kastenmeir (D, Wisc.), Jerome Waldie (D, Calif.) and others have introduced legislation that would authorize the federal government itself to buy up all properties in reclamation areas that are either too big or owned by absentees. The government would then resell some of these lands, at reasonable prices and on liberal terms, to small resident farmers, and retain others as sites for new cities or as undeveloped open space. The plan would actually earn money for the government, since the lands would be purchased at true pre-water prices and resold at a slight markup. The money thus earned could be used for education, conservation or other purposes.
Other plans for enforcing the Reclamation Act are also worth study. For example, the federal government could purchase irrigated lands in excess of i6o acres and lease them back to individual small farmers or to cooperatives. Or it could buy large landholdings in reclamation areas with long-term “land bonds,” which it then would redeem over 40 years with low-interest payments made by the small farmers to whom the land was resold. This would amount to a subsidy for the small farmers who bought the land, but it would be no more generous than the current subsidy to large landholders who buy federal water.
Of course, land redistribution should go beyond the Western areas served by federal reclamation projects; in particular, it should reach into the South. Thaddeus Stevens’ old proposal for dividing up the large plantations into 40-acre parcels is unrealistic today, but an updated plan, with due compensation to present owners, can be devised and implemented.
Another objective toward which new policies should be directed is preserving the beauty of the land. Reforms in this area are fully consistent with a restructuring of landholding patterns. Thus, a change in local tax laws so that land is assessed in accordance with its use would benefit small farmers and penalize developers. Zoning rural land for specific uses, such as agriculture or new towns, would similarly help contain suburban sprawl and ease the pressure on small farmers to sell to developers or speculators. If as a result of new zoning laws the value of a farmer’s land was decreased, he would be compensated for that loss.
An indefinite moratorium should also be placed on further reclamation projects, at least until the 160-acre and residency requirements are enforced, and even then, they ought to be closely examined for environmental impact. Schemes are kicking about to bring more water to southern California and the Southwest from northern California, the Columbia and even Alaska. These plans ought to be shelved. Federal revenues that would be spent on damming America’s last wild rivers could, in most cases, be more fruitfully devoted to such purposes as redistributing croplands.
Policy changes in other areas should complement the major reforms outlined above. Existing farm loan programs, for example, should be greatly expanded so that new farmers can get started in agriculture. Farming cooperatives, which can be a starting point for workers unable to afford an entire farm, should be encouraged through tax laws and credit programs. Research funds spent on developing machinery for large-scale farming should be rechanneled into extension programs for small farmers and co-ops.
It won’t be easy to enact any of these reforms. Friends of large-scale agribusiness are strategically scattered throughout the Agriculture, Interior and Appropriations committees of Congress, and are equally well ensconced within the president’s administration. Small-farmer associations like the Grange the National Farmers Union and the National Farmers Organization don’t have nearly the clout of the American Farm Bureau Federation, the big grower associations and the giant corporations themselves. The pro- industry land policy “experts” who formed the Public Land Law Review Commission that reported its findings last year were no friendlier to small-scale farming: they recommended repeal of the Reclamation Act’s 160-acre limitation and residency requirement, and adoption of policies favorable to large-scale mechanized agriculture.
Nevertheless, there are some grounds for optimism. Many citizens and public officials are coming to realize that rural America ought to be revived, cities salvaged, welfare rolls reduced, and they see that present policies aimed at achieving these objectives are not working. Environmentalists who for years have pointed to the dangers of intensive agriculture and the need for prudent rural land use, are finally getting an audience. The list of organizations that have recently urged vigorous enforcement of the 160-acre limitation includes the AFL-CIO, the Sierra Club, Common Cause, the National Education Association, the Grange and the National Farmers Union. That’s not enough to sweep Congress off its feet, but it’s a good start.
The ultimate political appeal of land reform is that it places both the burden and opportunity of self-improvement upon the people themselves. It can give hundreds of thousands of Americans a place to plant roots, and a chance to work with dignity. Can we deny them that chance?
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.