To disavow folks of the notion that your government exists to work in your interest, or that it is somehow immune to the same problems that “markets” are accused of suffering from, we will begin a regular series highlighting the egregious violations of the liberty of the citizenry perpetuated by the government.
Often, economists point out that many governmental failures are “merely” the unintended consequences of well-intentioned government policy. This series is not meant to highlight these instances (such as local rent control ordinances that are meant to make apartments affordable for lower and middle income families, but that instead make it harder for them). Rather the series is intended to highlight the deliberate and malicious actions by elected representatives, bureaucrats and other government officials to benefit themselves or favored constituencies at the expense of all Americans, at the expense of the ideas that this country was founded upon, and done in the name of “good economics”, “the public interest”, or”correcting Capitalism gone wild.” It can be done in a variety of ways, such as: the regulation of activities in the name of safety, the propping up of favored industries because they are “vital” national industries, prohibiting workers from contracting individually with potential employers, prohibiting the free entry of employees into various industries, using tax revenues to justify collective expenditures that cannot be afforded individually … and on and on.
Remember, your government officials operate from behind the point of a gun. This power of coercion is fundamentally contrary to the ideals of a free society, and of course is not a feature of capitalism, markets or commercial activity in general. Only when the power of the interests are allowed to express their preferences through the coercive power of government can the awesome powers of capitalism be unleashed in a harmful way on society.
In this first installment, I’d like to point outright prevarication by the Department of Agriculture in the 1970s. Under the guise of “protecting valuable farmland for food production,” the agency systematically over-reported the amount of farmland that had been converted to urban and industrial uses. It is now known for example that the total amount of land that was urban and “built up” was between 31 and 35 million acres in 1967. The D of A reported that the 1970s saw a buildup of urban and industrial land of an additional 29 million acres between 1967 and 1977. As Julian Simon points out,
over the course of more than two centuries, in the process of reaching a population of about 200 million people, the United States built towns on between 31 and 35 million acres. NALS asserted that suddenly in the course of another 10 years, and with a population increase of only 18 million people, the urban and built up areas increased by 29 million acres – a near doubling).
They lied. After a decade of reports refuting these findings, in 1984, the Soil and Conservation Service issued a paper that completely reversed these earlier figures and confirmed that urbanization did not increase to 64.7 million acres as they reported initially (and defended for a decade, in cahoots with census and a slew of “scholars”), but rather increased to 46.6 million acres. They were off merely by 50 percent. This is an unbelievably large error given the relative simplicity of the task at hand.
Of course the press did nothing to expose this scam, and horrendously bad policy continues to be made to this day based on the untrue assumption that America is losing “precious and valuable” farmland at an unprecedented rate. As Simon indicated, this was not a regrettable error, but rather a deliberate non-problem manufactured by the Department of Agriculture for the benefit of “environmentalists” that use such an issue to disguise their anti-market hatred, to homeowners whose land is near areas that would likely be developed in the future, and of course for other home owners whose nice, bucolic settings would be disrupted by future development.