(University of Nebraska Press, 901 North 17th Street, Lincoln, Nebraska 68588) 1980 • 338 pages • $16.50 cloth
American agriculture has always been an enigma for those advocating a free- market economy. Farmers and ranchers are steeped in a long tradition of supply and demand, respect for private property, and fierce independence. Yet the ever-present prejudices toward small, family-owned farms has rendered agriculturists helplessly susceptible to all kinds of institutionalist theories and perfect-competition models.
As a result, since World War I the public policy of American agriculture has remained continuously and increasingly interventionist even as farmers have tried to retain their independence. Through the USDA, the federal government underwrites most agricultural policy research, directs most agricultural economics, and pays much of the salary burden of land-grant university specialists and local extension agents.
Either by accident or by grand design, likely the latter, what has resulted has been a widespread and effective major network of avidly nonpartisan and avowedly nonideological apologists and defenders of government’s ubiquity. It should not be surprising that agricultural policy debates are narrow. Nor should it surprise anyone that outspoken champions of laissez faire are few and far between.
For some three or four decades, Don Paarlberg, professor emeritus of agricultural economics at Purdue University, has been a welcome and somewhat lonely exception to the rule. From his first writings while still getting his doctorate at Cornell to his latest book, he has been a believer in a market-oriented agricultural sector in the U.S. economy.
His Farm and Food Policy attempts to paint a broad picture of the policy options open to U.S. policymakers during the decade just getting started. In the most reasonable and conciliatory tone, Professor Paarlberg leads readers to logical, usually market-oriented, conclusions. From his Washington experience in the USDA and as an advisor to President Eisenhower, he retains an acute awareness of political pressures and the role of special-interest groups. The groups taking interest in farm and food policy are not limited to farmers.
While some students of economic freedom, this reviewer among them, might have preferred a more straightforward and less compromising defense of the free market, Professor Paarlberg’s book is a welcome addition to the shelves of books now dealing with food policy. Perhaps, by a balanced and comprehensive view, Professor Paarlberg has helped to inject more reason and less prejudice into farm policy debates.