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Monday, May 19, 2008


This morning's Novakula column bemoans GOP support for the controversial farm bill.

I am a bit at a loss here. I'm not a fan of the bill, but I don't see the partisan or ideological side of this. Agriculture (I refuse to use the term "farmers," as though we were talking about American Gothic or something) is a pretty powerful constellation of interests in this country (as in most countries). Moreover, they are widely distributed, in terms of geography, and as long as we elect representatives on a geographic basis (probably forever), they will be amply represented in the halls of power. Agriculture is especially well represented in "the Heartland," which elects many of those GOP representatives. It's not like agriculture is a "Democratic" constituency. They don't grow many "crops" in San Francisco.

In ideological terms, I guess that hard-core libertarians are opposed to any form of government subsidy, grant, or price support. But almost no one in the U.S. Congress is actually a libertarian in this sense. (Ron Paul!)

The bill may, indeed, be wasteful. But everyone agrees that waste is a bad thing. It's right there in the word, connotation and denotation. The question isn't whether waste is bad, it's whether any particular spending is waste.

This is, of course, related to the battle against "pork"--Novakula uses the term in relation to the Farm Bill. But in reality, earmarks make up a very small part of the federal budget, and eliminating many earmarks wouldn't actually reduce government spending at all (the funds would just be distributed by formula without the earmark). "Pork" in the form of projects or grants aimed at individual districts also make up a tiny portion of the budget.

Again, with very few exceptions, no one in Congress is opposed to government spending in general. Even right wingers support massive outlays for defense, weapons systems, and the war in Iraq. Even in the domestic sphere, most members of the GOP vote for highway spending, water projects, scientific and medical research, space exploration, education spending, Medicare, etc. Sure, GOP and Democratic members of Congress support different spending priorities, but that seems more the result of the different interests that support the parties than a matter of ideology. And where many, many interests, or one very large interest, supports an increase in spending, then we see bipartisanship.

Novak's column appears to posit that conservatives should oppose all government spending increases, at least in the domestic sphere. I know some people who think that way, too. But in operational terms, that is not how politics actually works.

Despite the last 30 years, during which the conservative movement has tried to make ideological purity the basis of politics, politics is ultimately about interests and power. (Yes, I'm an old-fashioned pluralist, so sue me.) I guess it makes for easy op-ed writing to decry the falling away from ideological purity, time and time and time again. But it makes for a very sterile view of the political world.

Novak would have GOP representatives from Kansas, Iowa, Alabama, even the agricutural parts of California (like I said, Agriculture is big) vote against the interests of their constituents. And then what? The constituents, not ideologues themselves, but acutely self-interested, would reward those representatives with . . . de-election. Right.

The ideologues continually bemoan the failure of ideology. But maybe the problem is in the theory, that ideology should drive political action, rather than in the practice of politics.


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