The “cash for clunkers” plan recently proposed in Congress would provide a subsidy for a new car purchase to anyone willing to have their current car destroyed. But the economic rationale is eerily similar to the New Deal program most widely agreed to be a catastrophic failure: FDR’s agriculture plan that slaughtered pigs. The reasoning goes like this:
Crushing the old car has two benefits. First, it ensures that the consumer’s purchase of a more efficient vehicle actually has a net environmental benefit. Second, it prevents a glut of used cars on the market, which would reduce trade-in values for new car buyers, which would cut into the sales incentive effect.
This was the same misguided reasoning that led to the slaughter of six million pigs and plowing under of about half the crop area under cultivation. The head of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration argued that:
People who believe that we ordered the destruction of food are merely the victims of their prejudices and the misinformation that has been fed to them by interested persons. What we actually did was to stop the destruction of foodstuffs by making it worth while for farmers to sell them rather than to destroy them.
In other words, the destruction of crops and livestock would ultimately lead to less waste because prices would be lifted, and so farmers would have more incentive to produce. However, despite vigorous defense by the administration, it is now known that most of the meat went to waste and it was an abysmal failure. Government cannot do a better job than the market in setting prices, and government’s destruction of output will never lead to increased output. It was a failure of economic reasoning – which is now coming back in vogue.