Posner presents evidence on the sizable subsidies received by American farmers from the federal government of the United States. However, the US is not unique, for every rich country including France, Germany, Great Britain, and Japan, heavily subsidizes their farmers, no matter how small the agricultural sectors. In fact, some of these other countries subsidize farmers more generously than even the United States. On the surface, this universal tendency for rich countries to subsidize farming, no matter how different are the details of their political systems, is a paradox. For since only a small fraction of the populations of these countries work in agriculture, farmers cannot contribute much to any majority voting coalition.
Add to this paradox that pretty much every developing country, no matter whether they have democratic or totalitarian political systems, rather heavily tax farmers in order to subsidize their urban populations. Taxing of farmers is as true of India as of China, Mexico as well as Argentina, Egypt as well as South Africa, and similarly for the other poorer nations. In all these countries, farmers are a significant fraction of their populations, and they form a majority in many, such as India and China.
This different treatment of farmers in rich and poorer nations is dramatically seen in the causes of and the responses to the recent worldwide explosion of food prices. American and European subsides to biofuels are an important factor behind the rise in food prices, for these subsidies directly raised the price of corn to consumers, and indirectly raised the prices of other grains (see our recent discussion on April 13 and 17 of the rise in food prices). Riots broke out in many cities around the world in protest against the increases in the prices of bread and other food stables. To quell these riots and other urban unrest, many countries restricted their exports of agricultural goods in order to lower the prices and increase the supply of these goods to their urban citizens. The effect of these export restrictions was to lower the incomes of the farmers in these countries since they were prevented from selling some of their produce on the world market where prices are higher.
This response to rising food prices by the governments of poorer nations is not explained by any concern about fighting poverty in these nations. The fact is that farmers in developing countries are much poorer on average than are their city residents, which explains the continuing migration from the rural areas to cities in these countries. So by putting restrictions on the exports of farm goods, developing countries are not only making their economies less efficient, but also they are adding to the overall incidence of poverty among their populations. The gap between the incomes of rural and urban families is much smaller in developed countries that subsidize rather than tax farmers. Indeed, with the high prices for cereals and other foods during the past couple of years, average farm incomes are often above those of city residents.
I believe that the explanation for the very opposite treatment of farmers in developing and developed countries is interest group competition (see my "A Theory of Competition Among Pressure Groups for Political Influence", The Quarterly Journal of Economics (Aug., 1983), pp. 371-400. This analysis shows that small groups, like farmers in rich countries, often have much greater political clout than large groups, like farmers in poorer countries. The reason is that even large per capita subsidies to small groups, such as farmers in the US, impose rather little cost (i.e., taxes) on each member of the large groups, like urban and suburban residents of the US. As a result, these large groups do not fight very hard politically against the small per capita taxes used to subsidize farmers.
By contrast, a large subsidy to farmers in developing countries would require imposing high per capita taxes on their relatively small urban populations since farmers are a rather large proportion of the total population in these countries. Instead, the same political pressures as in developed countries lead poorer countries, regardless of the nature of their political systems, to subsidize the smaller urban populations at the expense of the larger farm populations.
Hence a common approach to the political process based on interest group pressures can explain both the taxing of poor farmers in developing nations, and the subsidies to well off farmers in richer nations.