A Comparative Political Economy Approach to Farming Interest Groups in Australia and the United States

Article excerpt

I

Introduction: Farming Interest Groups and Natural Resource Management

IT IS UNQUESTIONABLE THAT farm practices impact the quantity and quality of natural resources. For example, forests can be inefficiently converted to cropland by artificially high crop prices. Domestic farm subsidy programs not only impact domestic agriculture markets but also have international ripple effects that disrupt farm production around the world. Local surpluses generated by artificially high prices put downward pressure on world prices and disrupt farm operations and renewable natural resource management decisions around the globe (Simon 1996: 125). Consequently, it is also undeniable that farming interest groups influence and impact on natural resource management. Partly as a result of interest group activity, governments have encouraged sustainable soil-use practices, not by telling farmers what they must do, but by combining cash with alternative land-use practices so that the farmers have financial incentives to use the sustainable alternative (Parsons 1941: 756). The political economy of natural resource economics, that is, the continual conflict between future and present appropriation (Gray 1913: 505), cannot escape the indispensable analysis of the political economy of farming collective action. As such, an examination of farming interest groups--formation, evolution, institutional decision-making processes, and goals--would reveal the direct link between farming applications, government policies as a result of lobbying, and natural resource management. Farming applications/practices are not simply the result of government policies, though for our purposes we will only concentrate on the values and ideology of farming interest groups, which naturally determine lobbying that influences government policy.

Commons ([1950] 1970: 34) insisted that "economics should be the science of activity." In this tradition, the aim of this paper is to investigate the structure, development, and evolution of farming interest groups using a comparative political economy approach. The analysis in this paper is not only restricted to the American context and, as such, is a contribution to the literature. Moe indicates that there is little research of a comparative nature in the analysis of farming interest groups (1980: 181), and to our knowledge this argument is still valid today. Special attention will be given to farming interest groups in Australia and the United States. Our research proposes to appeal to theories of collective action by Commons ([1950] 1970), Olson ([1965] 1971), and others in order to perform a comparative study of each country's largest farming interest group. The aim is to determine why two farming groups with supposedly similar interests have evolved such different means of achieving those interests. Our contention is that each group tends to display values that were prominent during its formation. The ideology and thus behavior of interest groups cannot be isolated from the history, the economic conditions, and the changing alternatives open to individuals. Knowledge of history is necessary for an understanding of the ideology of an interest group, the relative importance of the different factors, and the different proposals and demands for the future.

II

The Political Economy of Collective Action

GENERALLY, INTEREST GROUPS FORM because agents feel there is an opportunity to accomplish something collectively they cannot do alone. If members of a group have a common interest or objective, and if they would be better off by achieving that objective, it has been thought to follow logically that the rational, self-interested individuals would form a group to act collectively to achieve the objective (Olson [1965] 1971: 1; Knoke 1990: 6). This objective, or purpose, of group formation is important in understanding how groups evolve. A group's purpose is defined as that desirable state of affairs that members intend to bring about through joint action. …

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