It seems everyone--okay, Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds, Oxblog's Josh Chafetz and Daniel Drezner, at least--is thrilled about The Guardian's new blog-based campaign to eliminate all agricultural subsidies. The left likes the idea because it helps third-world farmers against rich agribusiness conglomerates. Conservatives and libertarians like it because it creates a freer market in food. What's not to like?
Well, I certainly believe that first-world agricultural subsidies are excessive, but it's worth recalling why those subsidies are there in the first place. In effect, a bit of each person's food bill goes into an insurance fund that underwrites a massive oversupply of food. Food production, after all, is subject to the vagaries of the weather, and by paying for surpluses in times of plenty, we guarantee that the supply will be adequate even in the event of a farming catastrophe. Avoiding famine--with its attendant social disruption, not to mention widespread discomfort--is, I would think, well worth the price of a bit of subsidized overproduction.
The real problem with the current subsidy system is that it was founded at a time when international trade was far less voluminous and reliable than it is today. As a result, it tends to guarantee an agricultural surplus in each individual country separately, rather than simply ensuring that there will be a dependable global oversupply of food. It would make much more sense for the world's major industrialized food producers to ratchet down their subsidies to a point where global surpluses are still guaranteed, even if any one particular country may very occasionally become a net food importer. After all, in the event of a disastrous domestic crop failure in, say, France, the French would still be able to purchase enough food on a glutted world market to sustain themselves, barring some kind of collapse of international trade.
Unfortunately, third-world farmers benefit less than one might hope from such a globalized surplus regime, because their output is too unreliable to form a significant portion of the insured production quota. Or, to put it another way, it'd be nice to be able to steer business towards poor farmers in developing countries--but not if by doing so, we ended up actually relying on them for our food supply.
Still, their production ought to count for something--and that's better for them than the current system, in which most countries act as if domestic supplies (not to mention domestic political pressures) are all that matter.