Gene Lyons’ latest column is a must-read. It’s a masterful takedown of Tom Cotton’s ahistorical notions of gumption, hard work and the free market — never the government — as the only forces for improving prosperity. Lyons, who lives and raises cattle in Perry County — next door to Yell County, where Cotton grew up and and where his family raises cattle — writes knowingly of how those and other rural counties have survived and how farming actually works. 

Contrary to Tea Party fantasies, it wasn’t plucky private entrepreneurs who paved the roads, strung the wire, saved grandpa from penury and made organized commerce across the rural South possible. It was federal and state investment.

Even today, such prosperity as Yell County now enjoys — it’s the 64th wealthiest of Arkansas’s 75 counties — derives from timber cutting in the forest and the proximity of three scenic lakes built and maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Not to mention, of course, agricultural price supports from the 2014 Farm Bill that Cotton voted against.

In TV commercials and public statements, Cotton depicts himself as the dutiful son of a “cattle rancher” who taught him farmers can’t spend money they don’t have.

It’s true that Cotton’s father ran cattle on his place near Dardanelle. However, it’s also a fact that Len Cotton retired as district supervisor of the Arkansas Health Department after a 37-year career. A public-spirited citizen, the senior Cotton also served on the Arkansas Veterans Commission, the Tri-County Regional Water Board, etc.

The candidate’s mother Avis taught in Dardanelle public schools for 40 years, retiring in 2012 as principal of the district’s middle school. Career government bureaucrats, both. And more power to them.

So I’m guessing Len Cotton raises cattle for the same reasons I do: because it’s an absorbing hobby with considerable tax advantages.

Meanwhile, the thing about the Farm Bill that urban liberals like Jonathan Chait don’t get, and that a poser like Cotton’s being disingenuous about, is this that it’s damn near impossible to farm without risking money you don’t have.

Farmers who have to pay for seeds, fertilizer, diesel fuel to pump water, to buy and maintain tractors and combines often more costly than the land. Farmers who borrow every spring in the hope of turning a profit in the fall. They also risk losing the entire crop to pests, floods, drought, tornadoes, cheap soybeans from Brazil, etc. If there’s fraud and waste, cut it out. But it’s in the national interest to keep agriculture strong.

Lyons also notes that Len Cotton has received almost $20,000 in farm subsidies from 1995 until 2012. Nothing wrong with that of course — just another example (just like taking student loans and voting against them) of the younger Cotton ignoring his and his family’s history in his voting and politics.