By Ian Munro
If your father was a doctor, or a carpenter, or a rodeo clown, do you believe that you would somehow have a right to the same career? Should taxpayers be called upon to support you as a chef or an insurance broker simply because that’s what your mother or your grandmother did for a living? No matter what may have changed in the world over the past thirty years, should you be guaranteed the opportunity to run a particular kind of business because that’s what your parents did for a living?
Most people likely will answer ‘no’ to these questions. However, arguments of this type imploring governments to preserve a traditional way of life do arise from time to time, particularly when the farming or fishing industries hit a rough patch. Typically these pleas are accompanied by foreboding comments that unless local farmers are bailed out by taxpayers, surely we all soon will go hungry.
There may indeed be many things that governments can and should do to improve the economic situation for primary producers, but these decisions should be based on clear-eyed analysis, rather than in response to romanticized notions of rural life or completely unrealistic scaremongering about impending food shortages.
On this note, the state of Nova Scotia’s hog farming sector has had a high profile in recent days.
Particularly eye-catching were the comments in a recent news article of a 19-year-old student at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College, who identified himself as a fifth-generation farmer and stated that “if I can’t farm, I don’t even want to live” and that he wanted farming to be his life, as well as his children’s and grandchildren’s.
Without being an expert in the economics of the hog industry, one can quickly imagine a number of issues that would be reasonable grounds for discussion with regard to helping an industry going through tough times.
Are Nova Scotia hog farmers subject to tax rates or regulatory burdens that are uncompetitive in relation to other jurisdictions? Are they being harmed by protectionist measures from other provinces or other countries? Have they been hit by unexpected calamities like the “mad cow” scare that hit the cattle industry or the avian flu crisis in the poultry industry?
Is it also possible that some Nova Scotia farms are simply less efficient and less productive than their counterparts elsewhere? Will some farm operations need to shut down or re-orient themselves, just as businesses come and go on Main Street and in the shopping mall?
If farmers can make the case that they face excessive taxes or onerous regulations, or that the government needs to do more to break down trade barriers that impede their ability to export their products, then the government should listen carefully and take action. By enrolling in studies at an agricultural college, the previously noted student displays a commendable interest in being able to manage a modern, efficient, and productive operation when his time comes to run the family farm. It would be a shame if misguided policies or regulations were to thwart his ambitions.
However, while we must be sensitive to the needs of people going through tough times and provide transitional support where needed, we should not be persuaded to continue to provide financial assistance to farmers simply on the basis of the emotional argument that they have a taxpayer-supported right to continue in the family business.
We also should recognize the argument about “food security” for what it is: a canard (particularly so with regard to ducks.)
If local farms must be supported to ensure the security of our food supply, then should we not be imposing bans on exports to ensure the food remains within our borders? Isn’t it curious how few people make this argument? Or suppose that we did subsidize our farmers on food security grounds, how long do you suppose it would take for the American Congress to decide that their farmers needed more federal money for the same reason? Do Canadian farmers really want to give the American government more incentive to subsidize farmers south of the border?
No guarantees are provided to family-run corner stores, construction firms, or restaurants that they will be able to continue in business from one generation to the next, and the trucking firms and grocery store chains that deliver food to consumers do not demand support on the grounds of their role in national security – farmers should not expect to be treated any differently.
Ian Munro is the Director of Research for the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a non-partisan public policy think tank based in Halifax.