It started in earnest in Holland last year. Now, thousands of farmers are blocking the streets of Paris, and thousands more are torching tires in Brussels. The movement, which might be fairly termed a popular uprising, has spread across Europe, from the borders of Ukraine to the shores of the Greek Isles. As uprisings go, it’s fairly genteel — the main objective seems to be to generate enough media coverage to get the attention of parliaments. Nevertheless, the angst is real, and stems fundamentally from excessive government meddling.
Though there are a variety of complaints, the common element to them all is pent-up frustration with the level of centralized regulations affecting day-to-day farm life. According to a Dutch farmer I spoke to, “because of the government’s demands, farmers are getting into trouble. It’s nowhere as stupid as in the Netherlands.” He may be right, but it’s a sentiment shared across the continent. Farmers EU-wide are annoyed at rules that arbitrarily require fallowing4% of their land, frustrated with government toying with diesel prices, mismanaged Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) payments, and heavy-handed environmental regulations like mandatory nitrogen reductions. All these can be laid at the feet of meddling bureaucrats who have been attempting to micromanage the agricultural sector for decades. National Public Radio reports that French farmers feel that “too much regulation has lowered profits” and that they are at a “disadvantage compared to other farmers in the EU.” Ever-shifting regulations on organic certification and climate change have driven average farmers bonkers.
In Germany, farmers dumped manure in the streets of Berlin, starting a trend that has made manure dumping and spraying a poignant (and no doubt pungent) publicity move. Protesters in Brussels have doubled the advertising power by adding thousands of pages of EU farm regulations into straw choppers and manure spreaders to bury the perimeter fences of EU admin buildings. Tired of the regulatory horseshit, they are replying in-kind with a slurry of bullshit, cow shit, pig shit, and more. Thomas Jefferson, who “liked a little rebellion now and then,” believed that the blood of patriots and tyrants was the “natural manure” for the Tree of Liberty. It’s better, of course, that European farmers are using actual manure to make their point, but it remains to be seen whether this kind of publicity display will lead to a substantive shift in the trajectory of overregulation.
Regulations on farmers have been steadily growing since 1962 when the CAP was introduced. It’s aims at the time seemed reasonable enough (as programs invariably do) and were listed as follows:
- increasing agricultural productivity
- ensuring a fair standard of living for farmers
- guaranteeing the availability of supplies
- stabilizing the markets
- establishing a secure supply chain with reasonable prices
- harmonizing competition rules across all countries
But as usual with innocuous-sounding government schemes, it is how these ambitions were to be achieved that bears scrutiny. And, in fact, the EU embarked on an extensive program of state control of agriculture: “to achieve these goals, an economic system of price and market support was put in place. This mechanism provided farmers with a guaranteed price for their products, introduced tariffs on external products and introduced state intervention in case market prices fell. Farmers received support according to their total levels of production.”
In short, CAP severed the farming sector from open-market signals, thereby effectively making farmers wards of the state. Indeed, if we use the traditional definition of socialism as the state ownership of the means of production, EU meddling in agriculture is as grand an experiment in socialist management as anything Lenin was ever able to accomplish.
Given the EU’s predictable failure to achieve impossible bureaucratic mandates guaranteeing vague goals like “fair standards of living,” or “reasonable prices,” or “availability of supplies,” it is no surprise that farmers are taking to the streets. Moreover, as the CAP timeline shows, the years since the 1960s have seen a steady shift toward newer, sexier, “green” initiatives that have steadily strangled the farmers who had come to depend on EU payouts. Frustration with environmental laws is top of the list of grievances, from Spain to Sweden.
In many ways, the current protests represent a delicious irony. Farmers are using the publicity techniques honed by the Green lobby to fight back against the regulations spawned by environmental activists these past decades. Special interest politics cuts both ways, it seems. When a motivated and adequately organized group combines to concentrate its lobbying power on government, it generates foreseeable incentives for the ruling legislatures.
Special interest groups, because they are relatively small, have much to gain from effective lobbying where they can extract great concessions at the cost of the wider public. Concentrate the gain, diffuse the pain is the name of the game. The Greens did this successfully for a generation, and now it is farmers who are taking a page from the playbook. They recognize, now that they have become largely beholden to taxpayer payments, that a noisy concentration of political pressure is the best means to keep the euros flowing. The prioritization of narrow interests over the broader public good is an old and familiar refrain—the protests are only noteworthy because they are forcing a previously successful interest group to concede to the will of a newly ascendant one.
And this, it hardly bears repeating, is precisely the trouble with excessive government involvement in free markets. In an effort to support the goals of one group, it inevitably intrudes on the ambitions of another, initiating a special interest spiral in which the only loser is the broader, disinterested public. Manure, as any politician will tell you, rarely runs uphill…