Jonathan Adler's post about how the federal government pays dead farmers not to farm has generated predictable outrage from commenters. I sympathize. But the critics are ignoring some important reasons why paying dead farmers not to farm is a lot better than paying living ones.
It's hard to deny that dead farmers can do just as good a job of not farming as living ones; perhaps even better! At the very least, paying the dead not to farm isn't worse than paying the living to do the same "job." However, there are three major reasons why it's actually likely to be better.
I. Lower Enforcement Costs.
When you pay living farmers not to farm, there are going to be enforcement costs. Those ungrateful peasants might be tempted to do some illicit farming on the side in order to make an extra buck or two. You may even have to file a lawsuit to get them to stop their nefarious black market farming. If you're really unlucky, the case might even go all the way to the Supreme Court, and then you're talking really big litigation expenses. By contrast, enforcement costs are rarely a problem when it comes to the dead.
II. Lower Deadweight Losses to Society.
When you pay living farmers not to farm, you deter them from engaging in productive activity that might benefit society as a whole. You reduce the production of food and raise the cost of living, especially for the poor. You don't have to worry about any of that when you pay the dead.
III. Less Rent-Seeking.
Once you start subsidizing the living, they will have strong incentives to lobby for ever larger subsidies and to reward politicians who hand them out, while punishing those who refuse. This activity increases deadweight losses by deterring ever-more productive activity, and also by diverting resources to the unproductive activity of lobbying and away from the socially useful purposes. Economists call this "rent dissipation." The good news: the vicious cycle of rent-seeking, lobbying, and rent dissipation is not a problem if subsidies for not farming are confined to the dead.
The Bottom Line.
I'd prefer that we abolish subsidies for not farming entirely. But if we have to have them, I hope as much of the money as possible goes to the dead.