8-1 economics

The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.



A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

8.1 (Winter 2008)


literature and economics



Freedom Grows on Trees: A Eudemonist Economics (Part One)

John R. Harris

Πόσων έγω χρείαν оύκ έχω ~ “How many things there are of which I have no need!”

Socrates beholding the agora’s merchandise (Diogenes Laertius 2.25)


I.  The Tension Between Capitalism and Culture

     I worry about the future.  No doubt, every sane adult of average intelligence has always shared my concern… to a point.  Yet I suspect that my anxiety—and that of my contemporaries (for we are generally a very worried bunch)—has something unique about it.  Men have been farmers, hunters, herds, and fishers for most of human history.  The cultivator would naturally worry about too much or too little rain.  In many settings, starvation waited on the leeward shore of this unease.  We do not nowadays fear starvation in the West: between technological advances and socialized governments, we enjoy the luxury of biting our nails above a fine-mesh safety net.  At the same time, we have never been farther—as individuals—from the food which actually enters our mouths.  The frontier farmer whose crop goes bad might make shift in a variety of ways, from harvesting wild nuts to trapping prairie fowl to roasting locusts.  (Hunger, as a very ancient saying has it, makes a good seasoning.)  He continued to have a large measure of control over his survival even in the cruelest of times.  If he possessed any sense at all, furthermore, he would have preserved whatever might be salted, pickled, or sealed from previous years of plenty.  If he didn’t manage to slither beneath the Grim Scythe, he could probably blame his lack of hard work and frugal planning for it in his last breath.

     It’s different with us.  We who are virtually assured of survival—and survival, at that, in a state of relative luxury—cannot depend upon our strong hands and our moral stamina to get us through.  On the contrary, we pay for our food and grow none of it (taking us, again, as typical individuals).  More likely than not, the farmer or hunter in us will inhibit success to the extent that he clings to our consciousness.  To put it bluntly, remuneration seems to have become inversely proportional in our Brave New World to physical exertion, sobriety, and husbandry: the silliest live the handsomest.  The liveliest markets are in frivolities.  The only jobs still requiring sweat suggest fragmentary caricatures of yesteryear’s independent cultivator, hauler, or builder: tasks that might be performed by machines, and have been so—but that we lately discovered could be more cheaply assigned to human drudges.  And the drudges collect their pay (with or without valid documentation of citizenship) and pile into the same supermarkets, shopping malls, and car dealerships as do we, their white-collar-fair-skinned handlers, to pay the going rate for staples and vanities, having no more proprietary a right to lettuces or shingled roofs than the more costly machine which declined to replace them….  We must not join their ranks, we tell ourselves, or allow our children to sink so low.  We must struggle after the “better life” of fatter paychecks, secured by selling discounted drugs over the Internet or the latest cellular phones at Radio Shack or guaranteed tax advice at H&R Block.  For some reason, we regard perspiring under an August sun as a betrayal of those intellectual gifts which entitled us to attend college, whereas none of the latter occupations is received as a slap in the face to our English or History Major.  We have been well conditioned, like drudges of a higher order.

     But I am not of this “we”, much to my distress.  I love to write, yet could never uncover a market for writers in my working lifetime.  The prospect of hawking cell phones to pay the bills appalls me no less than if I were required to box the coffin-nails of literate culture on an assembly line—which is, in fact, my metaphorical estimate of electronic communication’s current threat.  I would truly, and substantially, prefer to grow and harvest fruit (as I do in the most modest of ways on my tiny patch of property).  The endeavor would be far less gainful financially, but far more congenial to that independence of spirit which the literate life awakened in me from an early age.  I do not wish to utter absurdities, to make a frivolous display of myself, or to extol playthings which strike me as subtly pernicious in order to put food in my mouth.  Feed my family I must; but to draw a salary in return for behavior sometimes nothing short of morally loathsome strikes me as doing such violence to the conscience that one would be dishonest not to call it servitude.

     I—and those like me (for there are more than a few, though we are not the great “we”, apparently)—am a slave; or, at best, my economic existence is a constant battle against becoming a slave.  I have heard all my life that we of the progressive West enjoy a “strong economy”.  In my middle years, however, I increasingly find myself wondering why the strength of an economy should be defined by dividends paid to investors or the degree of ascent in the Gross National Product’s vector.  Should not human happiness serve as at least one ground of assessment?  And if a man who must fawn before fools or peddle snake oil throughout the week is less happy than a man who digs his own carrots and potatoes, in what sense may our economy correctly be called a triumph over yesteryear’s?

     In this essay’s title, I borrow the word employed by Aristotle—eudemonist—when he made his case for the goodness of material happiness.  I am enough of a Stoic to balk at his argument; but here, in matters economic, the criterion of happiness seems much more appropriate to me.  Granted, the ultimate measure of a human being is moral rather than economic: it lies in his or her success at ignoring specific conditions to serve a purpose beyond the will of the flesh.  Yet the flesh is instrumental in these high aspirations (which may well be the innocuous gist of Aristotle’s case).  It must eat and sleep in order to build and lift a Jacob’s ladder for the spirit.  There must, after all, be a sufficiency of material things.

     As a student of the humanities and a devoted servitor of the literate life’s higher rewards, I shall contend in what follows that our pursuit of winning our daily bread, right here and right now, has heeded the flesh too narrowly.  Our habitual “work life” has not been well designed by recent practice to accomplish the ends of spiritual enrichment, individual awakening, enlisted creativity, and other worthy destinations valorized by the great traditions of classical duty and Christian abnegation.  We have turned our collective back on a noble past.  As a capitalist economy dedicated to marketing and exploiting ever-newer products and drawing consumers, therefore, ever farther from a contentment with the status quo, our system is resonantly not conservative in any meaningful sense.  Indeed, I maintain that inasmuch as contemporary capitalism feeds the progressive impatience with the present, it is every bit as destabilizing to happiness as the self-contradictory Marxian quest for a world devoid of envy, laziness, despair, and spirituality.  Though the two systems radically disagree about human nature, they are alike in eschewing fixity—a similarity which suffices to make both inimical to the cause of humane culture.

II.  The Failure of Free Trade to Bestow Freedom

     I hasten to add that the notion of capitalism’s disjuncture from conservatism is nothing new.  Among a very select circle of intellectuals in the mid-twentieth century, it was indeed something of a commonplace.  Richard Weaver, author of Ideas Have Consequences, observed in another setting that “capitalism cannot be conservative in the true sense as long as its reliance is upon industrialism, whose very nature it is to unsettle any establishment and initiate the endless innovation of technological ‘progress’.”1  The lucidity of this remark is of the order of “two plus two equals four”: a system which depends upon the rapid obsolescence of purchases to bring consumers back to the store for “new and improved” versions could not be more definitively anti-conservative.  The sublime Russell Kirk raised this objection, essentially, in response to Clinton Rossiter’s highly tendentious Conservatism in America (1955): “A conservative order is not the creation of the free entrepreneur….”2  Businessmen sell things, and they sell more things and things of greater variety when the consuming public has more and greater “needs”.  The solicitation of such yens and itches is not the work of a Socrates, a Diogenes, a Seneca, a Marcus Aurelius, an Augustine, or a Francis—or, for that matter, of a Confucius or a Gautama Buddha.  Profit margins are uncomfortable closets for cultural treasures and timeless wisdom.

     Yet in Kirk’s reflections, one may already see an unfortunate paradox beginning to knot the corridors of its labyrinth.  The conservation of a precious cultural bequest must not be equated with blind atavism, for the life of our forefathers—if we go back very far indeed, into the shadows of prehistory—possessed no culture worthy of the name.  Our heritage of humane institutions and uplifting creations, then, is at least somewhat dependent upon a degree of technical innovation capable of freeing up time for leisurely endeavor.  The survivor of a plane crash does not reconstruct his shattered guitar without first assembling some sort of shelter and retrieving or gathering a minimum of food.  We can imagine very early examples of our species toiling away at cave paintings of bison or mastodons whose accuracy and finesse a bright kindergartner could surpass today.  Surely we may therefore say that we have come a long way—and surely we must say so before we claim that what remains in our cultural tracks is worthy of bundling into the present.

     Kirk seems to stress such progress in the critical seventh chapter of A Program for Conservatives.  His explicit theme here is the absurdity of a blunt, sweeping egalitarianism.  “Man was not created for equality,” he writes, “but for the struggle upward from brute nature toward the world that is not terrestrial.  The principle of justice, in consequence, is not enslavement to a uniform condition, but liberation from arbitrary restraints upon his right to be himself.”3  Nature is not self-evidently good in this view as it is in the romantic liberalism descended from Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  Savages are not noble.  They are exceptionally clever animals whose life nonetheless ends without having fulfilled a higher purpose.  Cultivation of the spirit must awaken them to a higher calling just as cultivation of the land will at last free them from having to scavenge every day for bare survival.  Some will contribute more than others to the great awakening.  The essence of culture is precisely that it makes of these unequal contributions a common legacy.  “Ability,” concludes Kirk, “is the factor which enables men to lift themselves from savagery to civilization, and which helps to distinguish the endeavors of men from the routine existence of insects.”4  Though the emphasis in this passage differs from mine, falling upon the individual’s need for spiritual elbow-room rather than upon the community’s profit from such generosity, the positions are two sides of the same coin.  A single brilliant innovation can turn an entire tribe or ethnos into an elite.  As long as the collective recognizes and indulges individual sources of brilliance, it may paradoxically be said to honor a grand tradition rather than to stagnate or degenerate.  Its conserving efforts are focused not just on knowledge of what fruits to eat or what herbs to use in cures—an attachment often more superstitious than cultural—but on the technique of inquiry which allowed such discoveries to be made.

     I called this dependency of cultural conservatism upon technical innovation an unfortunate paradox because the forces which create a grand tradition, alas, can also undo it simply by operating in their established, conserved manner.  Western culture has been engineered by at least two such dubious vectors, both vaulting from the consequences of alphabetic literacy.  One is individualism.  Reading and writing (especially writing, for reading usually begins as and stays an oral exercise over many comfortable generations) draw people in upon themselves, upon their inner voices and private spaces.  The worth of the individual human being is first widely conceded in literate cultures, where that individual first becomes assertive.  Yet the enfranchisement of so many autonomous units can also exert a fatal drag upon society’s energy when their various assertions become plangent and petulant for lack of proper tempering.  That is, individualism has a tendency to sour into narcissism as its creative vigor solves ever finer, less pressing needs, and we are left with a throng of spoiled brats.

     For the second worrisome impetus inspired by literacy is, of course, scientific inquiry.  The alphabet is itself a highly analytical and abstract tool, dividing words into component sounds and then representing like sounds with an arbitrary cipher.  Minds immersed in literacy engage in dissecting and reconstituting sensory experiences with a rapid dexterity that soon grows unwitting.  The literate mind comes to “read” its physical environment quite fluidly, parsing disparate phenomena readily into a limited and shared pool of hidden causes.  It gives us technology at a rate never approached in any other sort of human society—and hence, eventually, the laziness of heavy dependency upon technology, and also the tasteless infatuation with anything new.  “Pure” science becomes “applied” science with the same dismaying acceleration as we observe in the individualist’s slide into vain egotism.  These movements which have bestowed upon our culture the inestimable knowledge of what first to cultivate and how best to cultivate it always have the potential to plow the garden topsy-turvy just as its plants are bearing their richest fruit.

     The central problem, then, for a conservative economy—an economy that would hold onto the best of the past rather than routinely render yesteryear’s trappings obsolete—is how to abstain from such suicide.  How does an inventive, progressive culture preserve those elements essential to cultural identity rather than tinkering with or marginalizing them until they vanish?  The urgency of this question, I should stress, will be recognized only by those of conservative tastes and convictions, for the contemporary form of liberalism has discarded all overt submission to the classical or universal.  (“Universalist” is indeed a word of reproach in academic circles, the reasons for its opprobrium assumed to be self-evident.)  Today’s liberal is a materialist, and hence believes that happiness can be found only in one’s circumstances.  To the extent that circumstances are manipulated to produce more happiness—more chickens in the pot, more indoor plumbing, more health care, lower-priced football tickets—an economy achieves superiority.  Nothing deserves to be retained per se: everything is susceptible to complete overhaul, and awaits only the right technological advance to visit the scrap yard for meltdown.  Of course, such carnal wants as those for food, shelter, good health, and spectacle-class amusements are invariable and hence (honni soit qui mal y pense) universal, after a fashion.  Biology is allowed to decree universality among progressives: it is the materialist’s version of destiny.  Here the liberal may even locate a few shreds of lingering spirituality: any resuscitation of the inner beast repressed by bourgeois hypocrisy, from a sublime hike up a mountainside to a tawdry program of sexual experimentation, may qualify as an epiphany.  On those rare occasions when the liberal admits that contemplating the sunrise from a peak really is sublime, and not a mere response to the call of the wild, he or she risks walking a few steps along a trail once dear to humane cultural conservatism—and now largely abandoned, to be sure, by “conservatives” who plead the economy as an excuse for their barbarity, their progressive energy.
     Yet the conservative’s paradox, I reiterate, is much the more imposing.  Historically, we cannot escape the sad fact that self-styled conservatives have permitted their affinity for individual rights and robust creativity to ally itself with laissez-fairest, “anything goes” capitalist ventures.  In reading over the works of the late Oriana Fallaci, I lately happened upon a perfect example of mid-twentieth-century hubris emanating from a figure who most certainly identified himself with the political Right.  The scene was Saigon , shortly before the Tet Offensive.  Fallaci was treated to an extended interview with venture-capitalist millionaire Barry Zorthion, who told her (while chauffeuring her on a tour of the area in his private pontoon-plane) about his grand plans for Southeast Asia .  They did not include preserving much of anything: they projected, in fact, a rabid zeal for changing everything.

Mr. Zorthian is a 54-year-old of Armenian origin, with a great nose, a great paunch, a great faith in this war, and an unshakable conviction that “the United States should teach civilization to these poor wretches who have never heard anyone mention democracy and technological progress.”  In other words, Mr. Zorthian maintains that America is doing Vietnam an immense favor, not only from a military but also from an economic point of view.  “Once the war is won,” he says, “Vietnam will become rich like Japan, modern like Japan, respected like Japan—because we’ll teach her to harvest her resources on an industrial basis  Factories, skyscrapers, and highways will spring up everywhere, and the Mekong will be humming like Florida.”  The suspicion that the Delta’s peasantry may not want it to hum like Florida—that they may want only to live in peace among their hand-planted, hand-harvested rice—doesn’t so much as cross his mind.5

I shall refrain from drawing parallels with foreign policy of our own time—they are accessible enough in Zorthian’s dual hymn to democracy and high-tech capitalism that the reader may make connections as desired.  I will stress only that this largely self-appointed emissary of “Western values” (as they are understood by such people) not only registers triumph in Florida’s having been “developed”: he is eager to inflict similar transformations upon parts of the world about whose culture he knows nothing nor can imagine any lesson being worth the effort of study.  His “go-getter” Yankee spirit, when exported to go get profits beyond his native shores, can discern in ancient religions and social customs no more than childish obstacles.  Whatever his independence may be said to “conserve” (in a tightly pinched meaning) of traditional rugged individualism, his attitude and actions could not be more transparently anti-conservative in every profound sense.  Face it: if the new order of which he dreams were motivated more strongly by a desire to bring electricity and hygiene to the peasantry, we would be witnessing the resurrection of FDR’s Tennessee Valley Authority under Eastern eyes.  The Soviet Union ’s criminal devastation of Lake Baikal is perhaps even more akin—for dams shift regional balances in nature yet leave their region fairly natural.  Zorthian’s vision is so progressive that relics of nature would seem somewhat humiliating within it, signs of wasted space.

     As for theory rather than practice, nominally conservative economists were authoring a doctrine of free trade throughout the mid-century.  There was something of the primal barter at the logic’s foundation.  Two men want to make an exchange, they dicker, and finally they cut a deal.  Why create a bunch of abstracted, bureaucratically enforced rules in order to placate other people far away from the interests of these two?  If one party happens to speak a different language and live on the other side of a river declared to be the national boundary… well, a man should still be a man: his autonomy to trade a horse or swap grain for bacon is still really no one’s business but his own, if we imagine life on the frontier.  This, indeed, was the old way, a way that had worked for millennia before the first map was ever drawn.

     Naturally, my homespun images are a very poor crash course in the libertarian doctrine of Milton Friedman.  I hope that my highly simplistic presentation of issues beyond my ability to explain fully, however, betrays a certain sympathy.  People should live free.  The conservative, especially, with his belief in a metaphysical purpose to human life, should insist not just upon our right to be frugal, but also upon our right to choose risky options, to make bad choices producing instructive failures, and generally to grow as moral beings.  In the broadest sense, perhaps the idea behind free trade is not merely to be allowed to learn that cheaper shoes from overseas fall apart sooner: perhaps there is an implied civic calling to save one’s fellow citizens from living in a fool’s paradise of artificial protections aimed at postponing hard realities; for the shoes from overseas may not fall apart—we may need to stop making shoes and start making satellites.

     The free-trader, in this view, is supposed to be a mature globalist, not a ruthless adventurer.  In the words of Friedman’s distinguished contemporary, Henry Hazlitt, “The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.”6  Paying “real world” value for goods and services is facing up to the “longer effects”.  It forces the diehard traditionalist to admit with traditional resignation that, while there may be nothing new under the sun, neither does anything under the sun last forever.

     Who would have guessed half a century ago that indexing prices to the international market would come to be less the mark of dry common sense than—once again—of giddy progressivism?  Yet so it has happened.  With respect both to the individual barterer and the entire society seeking to avoid self-delusion, free trade has forged heavy shackles.  Its original architects (going back to the sainted Adam Smith) could not foresee that huge multinational corporations would exploit grossly unequal economic and social conditions around the globe to grind out the cheapest possible product.  Half a century ago, specifically, American workers were having to learn the hard lesson that their destiny lay in becoming highly skilled—that unskilled manual labor could be found elsewhere in abundance and at a discount.  Free trade thus ushered us, certain sectors kicking and screaming, into a golden age of technological innovation.  This floruit lasted a generation or two… and then the rest of the world began to produce technicians and engineers as competent as our own, but available for far less pay.  As we have watched “outsourcing” blaze its somber trail with the impeccable logic of greater profits, we have seen—just as logically—the lead in the race after more refined technology slip beyond our borders, as well.  The best-case scenario is that, as other nations grow more prosperous, the cost of living will rise on their shores, their social welfare programs will multiply as ours have done, and the American worker—at last willing to accept far less, like a starving laborer after a failed strike—will appear attractive once more.  Our standard of living, in other words, will meet somewhere in its downward spiral the ascending standard of the Third World .  Economically, we shall have created The Planet of High-Tech Lackeys.

     The worst-case scenario, by the way, is that societies ruled by megalomaniac oligarchs will acquire the dangerous technologies which we have thus far kept on a creditably tight leash.  Gaffes of the Chernobyl variety will inevitably turn entire cities and provinces into morgues; but beyond that, the oligarchs—whether enflamed by eschatological zealotry or simply unmoved by the prospect of killing millions—will launch doomsday weapons which we will no longer have the ability to defuse or fend off.  In short, this “cold market logic” could well be embarking us upon a voyage to annihilation.

     That, you must agree, doesn’t seem a very “conserving” sort of endeavor.  Friends of the free market may object that, if the bartering frontiersman tires of buying cheap Christmas toys from China , he may always crank up his own company back home and appeal to similarly disaffected countrymen.  In most particular cases, this is a practical impossibility.  Take the toy industry: we have found (as if we had any right to be surprised) that a wholly unprincipled Chinese regime exports products under respected American brand names which are neither well made nor safe to handle.  An opportunity for native manufacturers to rise from the ashes?  Alas, no: for the brand names, despite their highly publicized embarrassments, are just too big.  It’s no longer a question of a garage-enterprise competing with a local factory: the Internet has dispensed with all locality.  The presence of a company like Mattel, say, on the Net simply gobbles up the virtuous competition.  There is no quaint and curious new store front on Main Street , no favorable report from a friend, no small ad in the back of Sunday’s newspaper: utter oblivion, rather.  The Net was heralded by neoconservatives like George Gilder as a kind of libertarian utopia where every vendor could display his wares, untaxed and unharassed, to the whole world.  With the curious overreaching into cultural matters so typical of progressive prophets, Gilder proclaimed in 1995 that “the Internet has already made of this era a golden age of letters.”7  Yet the technology of universal publishing and publicizing turned out to be an impassible logjam.  Contradicting Gilder’s cornucopia of diversity and free expression, the Net, by exploiting the very finite time which most people have to spend peering at a very small window of images, has queued up all the competition for miles and then allowed only the first two or three contestants a screening.  Our barterer may have the prettiest little milch-cow in five counties… but there’s no fair where he may display her.  His neighbors aren’t even sitting on the front porch any more: they’re in a dark room hunched over a monitor, perhaps googling “heifers”.

     As if to accelerate the collapse of our independent small producers into a nineteenth-century mass of minimally skilled laborers servicing the edges of twenty-first century digitalized markets, free trade has even been used lately to justify the complete dissolution of national borders, permitting the unskilled masses of other countries to flood our own workplace.  If this is conservatism, then one is hard-pressed to distinguish it from Soviet paternalism.  In both cases, a tiny elite—political in the USSR , economic but increasingly political in the USA —assumes the “burden” of providing the basic needs (and, chez nous, a few frivolous wants) to a passive throng that lifts, hoes, and scrubs when and where it is told to.  We are to believe that these masses are actually happier now that their physical survival is guaranteed, and that they are happier still because the rich are “soaked” in taxes to fund their ration of weight-loss pills or to subsidize their switch to high-definition TV.  That is, they envy the millionaire less because, after the tax man cometh, the millionaire’s bank account looks infinitesimally more like theirs.  Richard Layard, a British MP and professor emeritus of Economics, explains trough assignments on this behavioristic animal farm with appalling bluntness and the chilling superbia of a born-and-bred social messiah:

If a person works harder and earns more, he may himself gain by increasing his income compared with other people.  But the other people lose because their income now falls relative to his.  He does not care that he is polluting other people in this way, so we must provide him with an automatic incentive to do so [i.e., to care].  Taxation provides exactly this incentive.8

     Dwight Lee, whose brief essay brought this passage to my attention, places “polluting” in italics—as well he should; for it is most remarkable that elitists like Layard fancy themselves to be cultivating turnips or adjusting an artificial lake’s size to duck migrations when they write of tinkering with human lives through mandatory taxation.  The reader may recall my claim that contemporary liberals, being devout materialists, cannot view happiness as other than an arrangement of circumstantial factors.  Layard does not recoil from the tendency of his fellow beings to envy the wealthy, let alone exhort them to build happiness’s foundation on more spiritual ground: he determines, instead, how best to channel envy so that no one has too great a measure of it, quite as clinically as one might station sugar-water for laboratory mice in a Skinner Box.  Yet Lee documents that both Layard and Cornell University economist Robert Frank view their proposed heavy taxation as encouraging the masses to spend more time with their families, and perhaps even to “develop the preferences of university professors… [for] more ‘elevated’ activities.”9

     We have come full circle again.  Socialist theoreticians and lawmakers are concerned about “family values” and art museums, while free-traders who claim conservative colors are busily engineering a swarm of docile masses beholden to its self-taxing masters for education, health benefits, and cues about taste and morals.  What, I ask, is the difference between the socialist Big Brother and the capitalist Dutch Uncle?  Multi-billionaire adventurer Bill Gates has lately expressed an interest in creating European-style educational tracks, the better to separate worker-bees and queens in the hives of humanity which he claims—by divine right of net worth—to know how to prepare for tomorrow’s world.  Multibillionaire CEO Warren Buffitt has lately insisted that he and his financial peers—a microscopic group, to be sure—pay far too little of their earnings to the sacred cause of central government’s good works.  To consider these men somehow antithetical to the snobbery of “nanny totalitarianism” on the Left is absurd.  In them, rather, we see that “harmony with the opposition” which the electorate is supposed to desire so piously of its representatives.  The Gateses and Buffitts would have us all well groomed, fat, and content—not the least bit volatile or brooding, without the least need of Heaven—in the caressing hands of some global mass-distribution plan.  A few drops of manna for all… with the servers, of course (for we are never to forget that our rulers serve us), deploying bowl and ladle as they see fit.

     No, this is not any imprint or facsimile of that cultural legacy which the conservative was to conserve.  On the contrary, it is a cluster of symptoms hinting at pathological egotism—the “benign tyrant”, the “bully who didn’t mean it”.  The ruthless entrepreneur is embarrassed one day to wake up and find himself incalculably rich as the corpses of slain adversaries surround him.  Jules Romains precisely sketched such “social consciousness” in the unsavory person of Sammécaud, an oil magnate who seduces the wives of aristocratic colleagues because he finds them “purebred” and secretly subsidizes a Syndicalist newspaper.  Musing to himself, Sammécaud reflects:

It’s so chic to concern oneself about the people’s plight without being forced to do so by circumstances or self-interest—while risking one’s interests, even, and without believing in any ideology.  The secular, gratuitous generosity of the superior race (“race” understood as “essence”, a mysterious something, a spontaneous volunteering of the elite).  Ultimately, these poor buggers owe us their access to civilization, to whatever little well-being they have.  And that little is already a lot.10

Sammécaud discovers a “fake spirituality” of sacrifice—fake because he himself is the god who deigns to bend over.  His “service” is the game of an imaginative nihilist, and it besmirches the hubristic player while demeaning his pawns.  If the classical view was correct in asserting that human beings only find happiness in seeking after transcendent, eternal truths—that the unexamined life is not worth living—then we have forgotten which way is up, for playful giants are not gods.  If Aristotle himself, who insisted that food, health, and shelter could not be excluded from happiness, was correct in explaining their contribution as merely instrumental, then we are fattening our loins for a slaughterhouse of the soul.

III .  Farming and True Freedom of Speech

     Stipulate, then, that unimpeded marketplace activity is not a blueprint for preserving that creative introspection, nurtured by literate culture, which tends to yield true, deep happiness (as opposed to those balmy affects deemed the signs of happiness by questionnaires).  A vigorous day trading at the market may make us well-to-do, or a year of such days leave us positively wealthy… but it may also, eventually, enslave us.  For a master is enslaved along with his slaves: the wheeler-dealer in any of his more sophisticated guises and locations is chained to his business interests in a way that corrupts his little bit of leisure (about that much, Professors Frank and Layard are correct).  Even the billionaire-philanthropist must discover that being one of the welfare state’s messiahs is an Atlas-like burden.  To escape the horrible fact of one’s own tyrannical power, one is apt to be mugging constantly for cameras and servilely courting a kind word from populist firebrands.  The satisfactions of the palace cannot be much more durable than the pleasures of the Colosseum if supplemented by no inner magnetism to an unconditional, immaterial goodness.

     Richard Weaver was fond of alluding to the forsaken nobility of medieval Christendom, and Wendell Berry loved to mingle the Gospels with earthy oral-traditional wisdom like that of the Sioux sachem Black Elk.  We all know that the Right was able to galvanize its political base in the latter twentieth century by appealing directly to Christian fundamentalism; yet Weaver and Berry would clearly have been uncomfortable with any formula that might equate material affluence with God’s blessing and reserve moral censure for specific behaviors like abortion and homosexuality.  I believe they were correct to insist that the fulfilled citizen must prosecute every stage of his daily existence in a conserving frame of mind—the parsimonia which Cicero extols in his Tusculan Disputations, the Socratic joy in needing so very little which rings resonantly through classical philosophy and persists in Augustus, Boethius, and medieval monasticism.  The “happy American” must be something more than a person whose mate is of the opposite sex, who slightly undercuts the competition at “year-end clearance sales”, who watches multimedia productions in a large church on Sundays, and who celebrates Christmas the way he would a child’s birthday.  If he is only this, he does not really understand happiness.  He is merely the product and the purveyor of mass-mentality, accepting material comfort as a self-evident good, rather too sensitive to public approval to be enlisted among the devoted knights-errant of moral duty.

     I have found few references in Weaver to José Ortega y Gasset, and none in Berry ; but I have no doubt that both thinkers were familiar with The Revolt of the Masses.11  Weaver’s sixth chapter in Ideas Have Consequences is even entitled, “The Spoiled-Child Psychology” (very probably an allusion to Ortega y Gasset’s señorito satisfecho).  Like the Spaniard, too, Weaver charges modern technology—especially the “Great Stereopticon” of instant info-entertainment provided by pandering communications media—with reducing our masses to this state.  Yet the accelerated pace of city-living is implicated in the degeneration from numerous other angles:

No one can be excused for moral degradation, but we are tempted to say of the urban dweller, as of the heathen, that he never had an opportunity for salvation.  He has been exposed so unremittingly to this false interpretation of life that, though we may deplore, we can hardly wonder at the unreasonableness of his demands.  He has been given the notion that progress is automatic, and hence he is not prepared to understand impediments; and the right to pursue happiness he has not unnaturally translated into a right to have happiness, like a right to the franchise.  If all this had been couched in terms of spiritual insight, the case would be different, but when he is taught that happiness is obtainable in a world limited to surfaces, he is being prepared for that disillusionment and resentment which lay behind the mass psychosis of fascism.12

Parallel passages could readily be found in Ortega y Gasset’s great book.13  The difference lies in the emphasis: Weaver pits the urban against the rural and carnal whim against spiritual longing.  He is constantly pulling back on the reins, harkening after a precious legacy squandered.  The Spaniard, in contrast, will imply as his essays feel their way along that fascism might be averted if Europe ’s nations would bond together in a progressive venture.  The former is more conservative, the latter more liberal.  Weaver was disappointed in contemporary Christianity: Ortega y Gasset apparently concluded Christianity to be a relic of the naïve past, incapable of a contemporary form.

     This distinction is worth stressing, because Europe turns out to have followed Ortega y Gasset’s recommended course—with the result that it is now a loose collective whose manners are tightly monitored by gloriosi like The Right Honorable Richard Layard.  Far better would have been a rediscovery that envy is a sin: that all creatures must die in the flesh, that all things must decay to dust, and that only a fool would therefore stake his happiness upon never sickening and ever acquiring more pelf.  To the Stoic philosopher Epictetus (for such insights are by no means confined to Christianity), the deduction was as simple as A, B, C: “The good should be such that one might be firm upon it and trust it.—Yes, it should.—Can one be firm upon the unsteady?—No.—But surely pleasure of the senses is not steady, is it?—No.—Out with it, then, and clear it from our scales!”14  The masses have only the fleeting image of pleasures and luxuries, fulfilled briefly or in part from time to time, upon which to found their sense of achievement.  That manipulators like Layard are so aware of the image’s vacuity as to build a comparative record of various flawed perceptions—to devote, indeed, entire social programs to creating maximal illusion—testifies to the new Europe’s ruinous cynicism in choosing intoxicants over the sobriety of real striving.

     For to strive is to integrate oneself into the natural cycle begun with birth but not ended with death: it is to exchange oneself for something not oneself, yet enduring after one (to speak in earthly terms) as an expression of what one has chosen to serve—perhaps literally to die for.  Such is the perspective of Wendell Berry’s elegant essay, “Discipline and Hope”.  Berry , alas, refers not to Europeans but to his own countrymen when he writes,

Because of the prevalence of economics [i.e., profitable, faddish “conveniences”] and the philosophy of laborsaving, it has become almost a heresy to speak of hard work, especially manual work, as an inescapable human necessity.  To speak of such work as good and ennobling, a source of pleasure and joy, is almost to declare oneself a pervert.  Such work, and any aptitude or taste for it, are supposedly mere relics of our rural and primitive past—a past from which it is the business of modern science and technology to save us.15

The “specialist”, that arch-villain of Ortega y Gasset’s, is again very visible in Berry ’s assessment.  Particularly aggrieved by the predations of strip-mining in Kentucky , Berry was incurably astonished that human beings could create such hellish landscapes for the sake of such temporary gains.  Only someone fitted with the blinders of an obsessively narrow ambition could so ignore an exploitation that outraged both the human spirit and plain common sense.  For Berry, like Weaver and other Southern Agrarians (a vague movement inspired by the publication of I’ll Take My Stand in 1930), was as keen to observe that people cannot live very long in wastefulness as to lament that no one could enjoy living in wastelands: the heart hath plenty of reasons, pace Pascal, which reason understands full well.  To conserve is a spiritually enriching duty, but it is also a practically necessary one.  The specialist or “economist” cannot see this because he measures success by the quarter-year.  Perhaps the unnamed Ortega y Gasset could not see it clearly because a clinical positivism had not scalded Europe ’s physical appearance, for the most part, but only made her consumers hungry for American gadgetry.  Uniting specialists in a common adventure, however—in harvesting the ocean bottom or mining the Moon—will do nothing to restore the missing spirituality of life that reconciles man to his lot and makes enduring happiness accessible.  On the contrary, it will feed the illusion of the far horizon’s heavenly amplitude.  It will slate Lake Baikal for execution by progressive Soviet bureaucrats with inflexible timetables for “productivity”.

     If the key for both Weaver and Berry was spirituality, then the key to economic spirituality—to feeding one’s children and paying one’s bills in a fashion pleasant rather than odious to intellect and soul—was the land.  The good, rich earth: source of perpetual rebirth from death, sacrificial mother to the human race, inspiration of human creativity’s most powerful images and melodies.  Berry actually revived the fine art of plowing behind a draft animal: as if to emphasize that labor itself is as important for the spirit as food for the body, he embraced grinding toil with zeal.  My own objection to such devotional acts, rewarding though they surely are to the individual, is that they invite caricature of an entire range of positions on critical economic issues.  We will not convince most Americans to become Amish farmers—nor should we try, in fact.  The technological genie is out of the bottle.  If we were willing to surrender the lead in the arms-and-energy race to our hungry pursuers, we should have to live in the world—and very possibly die an untimely death in it—that would result.  Allowing the current Chinese regime to dictate the course of the twenty-first century would be a crime against humanity that we would scarcely have time to regret.

     The alternative to the great hive which Chinese communism seeks to make of the human race, however, is precisely a society of self-sufficient individuals—not another hive, set in motion by the lure of profit and the goad of envy rather than by a soldier’s machine-gun.  To be truly independent in a high-tech economy is no easy matter, and the hardest value of the equation to supply is food.  Farming one’s own small plot of land has become appallingly low-tech, visited both with a certain derisive social stigma and with the practical difficulty of demanding too much time; for you can’t farm in the city, and to the city you must go if you would pay your other bills after growing your own vegetables.  Yet the high-tech job awaiting us at the end of a painful daily commute through smoggy traffic jams is less likely the design of a satellite system to avert hostile missiles than the design of a new cellular phone which starts the hot water running in the tub back home.  What contemporary man needs for his happiness—and maybe even his sanity—is the economic ability to refuse work on this cell phone, to refuse the alternative of building pizzas at a “drive-thru” window, and to refuse the occasional third option of living on the dole.  He needs to be able to participate in contemporary life without being enlisted into the West’s growing army of wage-slaving clowns, acrobats, and snake-oil salesmen.  He needs, with all his learning and humanity and optimism, to be able to conserve a sense of honor.

     Land can give him this honor, because it can provide him with a) a place to find shelter, and b) a source of food staples.  He may or may not find conscionable employment as an architect or copy-editor within a few weeks of refusing to market pills for “sexual enhancement” or to sell used cars in Spanish.  If a satisfactory option is slow in coming, however, he and his family will not starve—not, that is, if he can deploy technology in farming his half-acre of suburban property.  A few tomato plants on the patio, or even a back-yard garden of the conventional kind, won’t do the trick; but if he knows or learns how to maximize his yield with innovative strategies, then he will be a provider in the word’s true, direct sense while also being nobody’s toady or pimp.  So privileged a position, unfortunately, is enjoyed by ever fewer in our entertainment-economy.  Land is the key to our recovering our personal dignity—the power of announcing at a lucrative but morally squalid place of employ, “I won’t do it—I quit.”

continued in next issue


1 Cited in George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 (New York: Basic Books, 1976), 204.      return

2 Ibid., 198.      return

3 Russell Kirk, A Program for Conservatives (Chicago: Regnery, 1954), 176.      return

4 Ibid., 177.      return

5 Oriana Fallaci, Niente, e Così Sia ( Milan : Rizzoli, 2002), 85.  Reprinted from 1969.  The translation from Italian is mine.      return

6 Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson (New York: McFadden, 1961), 13.      return

7 From p. 209 in George Gilder, “Breaking the Box,” The Information Revolution, vol. 67 of The Reference Shelf, ed. Donald Altshiller (New York and Dublin: H. W. Wilson, 1995), 202-210.      return

8 Richard Layard, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (New York: Penguin, 2005), 228.      return

9 P. 43 of Dwight R. Lee, “Happiness and Liberty ,” The Intercollegiate Review 42.2 (Fall 2007): 41-48.     return

10 My translation from Jules Romains’s novel Les Superbes, p. 829 of Les Hommes de Bonne Volonté, vol. 1 (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1988 [reprinted from 1958).      return

11 Cf. Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1948), 130; and Nash (op. cit., 38) claims that the Spanish theorist was a major influence on Weaver’s doctoral dissertation.      return

12  Ibid., 113-114.      return

13 Besides the already suggested eleventh chapter of Part One, “La época del señorito satisfecho”, the ensuing chapter of La Rebelión de las Masas, “La barbarie del especialismo”, stresses the role of the technician in narrowing cultural vision—a perspective even more central in Wendell Berry’s argument shortly to follow.      return

14 My translation from the discourse recorded by Arrian “On the Beginning of Philosophy”, 2.11.20-21.     return

15 Wendell Berry, p. 117 of “Discipline and Hope” in A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972), 86-168.       return

John Harris is the founder and president of The Center for Literate Values.  His doctorate in Comparative Literature was completed at The University of Texas at Austin, from which institution he has also earned degrees in English and the Classics.  He taught throughout the southeastern United States in a variety of settings and disciplines for two decades before giving The Center most of his attention.