Steve Chapman

The country was a very different place then. In 1930, one of every four Americans lived on a farm. Today, it's one in 50. But the farm bill passed by Congress and signed by the president this month was a missed opportunity to enact changes that would reflect the vast changes over the past 80 years.

The politicians could have started with this system, which bleeds the many to enrich the few. "No industry is as coddled as farming, and no industry as centrally planned from Washington," writes Cato Institute policy analyst Chris Edwards. "The federal sugar program is perhaps the most Soviet of all."

Not only do the connoisseurs decree the appropriate price for this basic commodity, but they say who may sell the stuff and how much of it. They establish the correct division between sources of sugar: In 2011, it was 54.35 percent beets and 45.65 percent cane. They even decide how much can come from specific companies.

Looking at sugar, it's hard to remember we live in a capitalist economy. But in other industries and many farm products, these matters do get resolved, without the intrusion of federal overseers, through the functioning of supply and demand in a competitive marketplace.

Believe it or not, the same system would work for sugar. Farmers would decide how much to plant, refiners would decide whether to buy from domestic suppliers or foreign ones, and prices would reflect the ups and downs of production and consumption. They would also be consistently lower.

But our leaders have an addiction they just can't shake. Sugar is a substance that, in people, can rot teeth, foster illness and lead to obesity. Its effects on government are pretty much the same.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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