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U.S. must end farm socialism

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The Sept. 14 collapse of the WTO's free-trade talks in Cancun, Mexico, should smack craven politicians and pampered farmers like a two-by-four across their foreheads. Democrats and Republicans on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue treat agriculture subsidies as purely domestic political handouts. Both parties fertilize rural America with taxpayer dollars to harvest its votes like amber waves of grain.

Growers, for their part, never stop crying for help, whether their soil is parched (generating drought aid), soaked (flood assistance) or perfect (cash relief when bumper crops hammer prices). Some programs pay farmers to cultivate things; others pay them to plant nothing at all.

Too many in agriculture expect the U.S. Postal Service to deliver revenues directly from Washington.

"How do you double your farm income?" growers joke. "Install a second mailbox."

No one's laughing now that the Group of 22 developing nations abandoned the World Trade Organization's trade negotiations. These countries demanded a prompt end to wealthy nations' farm socialism. In short, they called the bluffs of America and the European Union, both of whose authorities deliver stirring pro-trade speeches, then underwrite their own growers anyway.

While representatives of predominantly Muslim, cotton-rich Chad and Mali criticized America's $1.6 billion in 2003 domestic cotton subsidies, Western trade ministers tried to change the subject to free-trade in financial services. Seeing their survival tied more closely to seeds than securities, Third World delegates jetted home in disgust.

Good for them. While they certainly should lower their own barriers, they are sick of listening to American and European officials lecture them from the moral ditch that is First World farm policy.

According to the Environmental Working Group's first-rate database (www.ewg.org/farm), Uncle Sam will spend a total of $16.4 billion this year subsidizing corn, peanuts, rice and much more, including $34 million for Catfish Feed Assistance.

Even worse, the European Union will spend $41 billion nursing its own farmers. In fact, the EU devotes 60 percent of its budget to agricultural favors.

Its arrogance also fortifies Third World frustrations.

"When considering the recent extreme proposal sponsored by countries such as Brazil, China, India and other countries, I can't help but think that we are in different orbits entirely," EU Agriculture Minister Franz Fischler told reporters. "If they want to continue in their space orbit, they will not get the moon and the stars, but rather empty hands."

Many Third Worlders never heard Fischler's smug words. That's because they are dead. The Brussels-based Center for the New Europe estimates that continental farm subsidies reinforce African, Asian and Latin poverty and consequently kill 6,600 of Earth's downtrodden daily.

"One person dies every 13 seconds somewhere in the world — mainly in Africa," concludes the group's Sept. 4 report, "because the European Union does not act on trade as it talks." (Full disclosure: I commented from Cancun for this free-market think tank's Web page, www.cne.org.)

If European farm payments actually are toxic, American agriculture subsidies surely kill Third Worlders, too.

Little of this likely would impress American dairy, sugar and wheat producers who claim they will sink without federal aid. They deserve zero sympathy. Washington does not finance broccoli, chickens, lettuce or tomatoes. Yet somehow Americans devour these items daily. Those who propagate them earn profits or at least have the decency not to whimper about their losses to their congressmen.

Aside from dead poor people, the other innocent victims of this fiasco are American manufacturers, pharmacologists, software designers and other innovators. They and their employees would benefit from freer trade had the dole-addicted farm lobby and its political enablers not hindered the cause of open global markets.

Agriculture subsidies rob American taxpayers and enrich often-affluent U.S. growers. These payoffs impoverish and deepen the anti-Americanism of Third World farmers who gag on the hypocrisy that divides Washington's free-trade rhetoric from its protectionist reality. Farm welfare is not just a domestic goodie. It gives America major international migraines.

Now that President Bush and the so-called Republican Congress have watched agriculture transfers sandbag the WTO, they should put a scythe to the $125 billion, 10-year subsidy bonanza they approved in 2002. Its $96.7 billion in unspent funds should be re-allocated to legitimate priorities — for instance, building a free and prosperous Iraq.

Deroy Murdock is a senior fellow with the Atlas Economic Research Foundation in Fairfax, Va.