Subsidizing Death

June 30, 1995|By GARRY WILLS

Chicago -- The House Appropriations Committee just voted 33 to 17 to retain the U.S. government's subsidy to tobacco growers, which gives $49 million of the taxpayers' money to people who supply us with the instruments of death.

Smokers contend that they should be able to risk their own lives if they want to. But why should we pay to supply them with the means for doing that?

This subsidy is an absurdity of long standing. Part of the government issues warnings from the surgeon general's office trying to prevent people from smoking -- while another part props up the smoking supply system. It is like telling people to avoid drugs but subsidizing marijuana fields.

If the subsidy made no sense before, it is made far more ludicrous by the present makeup of Congress. The Republican majority took office promising to shrink government, cut welfare and get the federal government out of the private market. Now we are told that market forces are not enough to make it profitable for some tobacco growers to keep at their deadly task, so we must interfere with the free play of prices by artificially supporting farmers.

Proponents of the subsidy say that ''small farmers'' need help. They are the same ones who say, in a different context, that businesses unsupported by buyers and commercial interchange ought to disappear. Besides, farm subsidies in general use the small farmer to win support that actually aids large farmers more than small. This is an anomaly the Republicans will have to face again and again as they try to keep farm subsidies of all sorts for their constituents, abandoning in the process key parts of their own ideology.

Furthermore, it is odd to hear arguments for the needy tobacco farmer from people who want to cut off aid for dependent children. Whose need is greater than theirs? Welfare is only welfare, in these people's eyes, if it goes to people who actually need it. Middle-class benefits are not ''the dole.'' Welfare to those who do not need welfare is praiseworthy.

The same committee that saved the subsidy for tobacco growers voted to cut the subsidy for the arts by about 40 percent. It is all right to grow something that kills you, but not to support an agency that might supply art that offends you. Dirty pictures are the enemy, but not rotten lungs. What a world.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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