Have liberals forgotten that the government can’t fix everything? 

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Progressives’ faith in the federal government’s ability to make policies to better Americans’ lives goes back at least a century. President Joseph Biden certainly has shown a zeal for having the federal government do more. Both his State of the Union address and fiscal year 2025 budget would add more items to the fed’s to-do list. 

Left unaddressed is the underlying assumption that people in Washington have sufficient information and understanding of problems and can draw up a sound plan to solve them and coordinate others to execute the policy. Central policy planning sounds easy but, in fact, is exceedingly difficult. 

If anyone has doubts, they need only consult Edward C. Banfield’s classic book, “Government Project.” The book, in which I wrote the preface, tells the story of an ambitious, thoughtful anti-poverty program that began in 1937.  

The Farm Security Administration (FSA), led by the dashing Columbia University economist, Rexford Tugwell, decided to try something new to alleviate the crushing poverty among rural inhabitants. The agency and its sharp and committed staff would establish a large cooperative farm. It would employ both farmers who had lost their land due to the Great Depression and the awful droughts that fomented the Dust Bowl, and migrant field workers who scratched out living through seasonal stints at big corporate farms. 

Casa Grande farm, as they named it, would give these impoverished Americans stability. They would have a place to live and work. They would own shares of the farm that would grow in value. 

No longer would these Americans have to live in shacks or sleep under the stars. Casa Grande’s settlers would live, as Banfield described, in “wonderful new houses — houses with electricity, flush toilets, screens, and modern appliances” erected along newly laid roads.  

Many people applied to become residents at Casa Grande farm. In 1937, the FSA selected approximately 60 families who seemed best suited to live and work on the 5,000-acre settlement. The agency drafted an operational plan and hired an experienced manager to help get the farm running.  

Within a few years, Casa Grande farm’s sales of livestock and crops were covering its operating costs, and the people who lived there were earning a steady wage. Yet, in 1944 Casa Grande’s farmers voted to liquidate the farm and walk away from it with far less wealth than could have possessed had they remained. 

The FSA’s policymakers were both surprised and dismayed. Why would these people throw away all they had and return to migration and poverty? 

The FSA’s wonks were thoughtful and had the best intentions but made mistakes. Most fundamentally, they had assumed that material comfort, steady paychecks and FSA exhortations of the virtues of cooperation would incentivize the settlers to cohere into a prosperous and enduring community.  

Instead, the farm was fractured by conflict. Political factions developed and jockeyed for power, with some settlers openly feuding with the FSA. The elections for the farm’s governing board, which had some authority over the farm’s finances and workings, were intense and divided the community. 

There also were disputes over operational issues that stemmed from the conflicting objectives of the farm. FSA policy-makers wanted it to provide steady, full-time employment to inhabitants but also to operate efficiently so it could compete with corporate farms. Thus, fights erupted when Casa Grande’s settlers tried to increase the farm’s efficiency by replacing manual labor, like cow milking, with machines. 

Additionally, some farm tasks, like cotton picking, were more demanding than others. Working cooperatively should have meant that employees rotated between the varying jobs to equalize the burden. But, again, efficient farm operations necessitated that farm staff specialize.  

Policymakers also had errantly presumed the settlers would share their delight in working collaboratively for a government agency. Instead, these settlers were at heart individualists who wanted to own their own land and farm it as they saw fit. They enjoyed the nice houses and other amenities but felt little attachment to Casa Grande farm and its benefits since they felt they were given and not earned. 

Tugwell, who oversaw the project, later wrote of Casa Grande farm, “It is not a nice story. Our simple impulse to better the economic situation of a few almost hopelessly poverty-stricken folk in the Southwest came to grief.” 

“We can see in it many lessons if we will,” he added. 

Quite true. But is anyone in Washington, D.C. interested in relearning these lessons? 

Kevin R. Kosar (@kevinrkosar) is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He hosts the Understanding Congress podcast and wrote the preface to Edward C. Banfield’s Government Project (AEI Press, 2024). 

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