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.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
8.2 (Spring 2008)
literature and economics
Freedom Grows on Trees: A Eudemonist Economics (Part Two)
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)
(continued from the previous issue; numbering of sections and footnotes resumes from where Part One ended)
IV. A Series of Hypothetical Contrasts
Heretofore, I have argued that a genuine concern for happiness has been all but exiled from contemporary discussions of economics. I have been especially critical of soi-disant conservative theories in this regard, precisely because I believe that the secret to human happiness, considered as an empirical phenomenon indexed to a certain material state, must contain substantial elements of conserving. Coherence with the past, a fairly secure anticipation of the future, a perceived harmony between one’s personal values and those of one’s neighbors… surely these are circumstances attendant upon the satisfaction in life expressed by sane, responsible adults of any era. Today’s liberal, in my view, has therefore disqualified himself from addressing the great question at issue. Since contemporary liberalism is so heavily invested in change, as if people were mere morsels in a stew whose proportion and seasoning could be adjusted until the perfect recipe finally produces just the right savor, I have looked in the other direction for answers.
They have not been forthcoming. Indeed, the neo-conservative of today shows little interest in conserving anything of the cultural or the spiritual—or even, perhaps, of the social. Here, too, change reigns supreme, usually in the holy name of free trade. Institutions must make way when they stand in the path of financial gain. Even religion and family are typically defended with reference to statistics that correlate church-going and marriage to income and longevity. Such reasoning certainly implies that Bible-reading would have to go if, for instance, a new survey suggested memorization of the Beatitudes to accompany a reduced ability to scale the corporate ladder. In the same way, Main Street ’s boutiques have lately been boarded over or paved under because shoes and soccer balls can be made more cheaply in India than in Omaha .
Both to recapitulate and to clarify further, I should like to proceed from this point by positing a series of images. I shall ask the reader to picture typical people living in various cultures. The method is no doubt unscientific in numerous ways; but then, happiness is neither a bank account nor a ration of grog and beef. It is something, rather, that those of us who study belles letters and past civilizations should be less shy about identifying, for our qualitative sensors should be more apt in this investigation than the clinician’s weights and measures. All the same, I hope that I shall not offend grievously against objectivity. The portraits that I advance are highly generalized, but not at all distorted as generalizations.
Imagine, first of all, human society in its simplest state: that of the hunter-gatherer who lives in semi-temporary camps of two or three dozen people, migrating within a fairly fixed range as nuts, tubers, fruits, and game within easy walk of a given site are depleted. This manner of living, to be sure, is “simple” only in regard of its minimal technology. In other ways, it can be quite sophisticated. Popular representations of it often err in both directions: we are invited either to see Adam and Eve delighting in Eden or a clan of “cavemen” eking out a brutish existence. A few objective remarks will serve our purpose here. Of primary importance is the fact that hunting-and-gathering is not arduous toil. The men who track down prey do not race antelope or wrestle bears: they are infinitely more likely to snare small animals and to address larger ones with poisoned darts, patiently shadowing them for hours, perhaps, until the dose takes full effect. The women who dig roots and grope after berries do not spend hour upon hour doubled over or balanced on their toes: they have no quota of bags to fill, no specified number of fields to harvest. Though life depends upon the success of such food-gathering expeditions, we seek almost in vain for any instance of a malnourished people straining under great burdens or against massive obstacles with every fiber of their frail bodies. To call their life a leisurely one would not, in a sense, be inaccurate. The chores of gathering, especially, can be combined with socializing. (Hunting demands less noise and rewards spreading out.) In a long-standing culture where knowledge of healthy and unhealthy plants, safe and unsafe approaches to predators, secure and unreliable shelters, etc., has accumulated over the centuries, the hunter-gatherer existence may well be viewed as robust, free, peaceful, and even mentally challenging—in short, as a regimen not incompatible with happiness.
I would stress that the medical technology upon which we found our era’s superiority to all others with such overweening confidence would not have been sorely missed in hunter-gatherer communities during a typical month, or maybe even a typical year. Granted that broken bones poorly set would permanently reduce an individual’s contribution, and probably his or her lifespan: yet what I have written above should suggest that activities involving a high risk of fracture or internal injury must have been rare. Members of such societies tend to know how to budget efforts and avoid dangers.16 That having been granted, our “superiority” dwindles to an acquired skill at making up deficiencies in our diet and daily exercise artificially and an advanced technology of fighting infections with injected antibodies. Here again, our pride is somewhat presumptuous. Concerning diet and exercise, the hunter-gatherer could no doubt teach our best clinicians a thing or two. As for infections, we are especially prone to them despite our keen awareness of hygiene because we constantly expose ourselves to strangers in our footloose, densely populated lifestyle. The tribesman-counterpart of our frequent-flyer executive passed most of his days among the same thirty people and their progeny. His vulnerability would become apparent only if some representative of our world were to intrude upon his, importing a host of new bacteria and viruses along with the best of intentions.
Yet there’s no denying that such a life, at its less fortunate moments, could be very hard indeed. Years of irregular climate brought about such moments. If the usual foods could not be harvested within the tribe’s usual range—or not in sufficient amount to sustain the group—then starvation might virtually annihilate the small society. Severe weather conditions might also render habitations inadequate: grass huts might blow away, and wigwams of hide might not keep extreme cold at bay. Settlements were an answer to such afflictions. A permanent home, of course, could be more soundly made; and the limits which it would impose upon one’s wide-ranging habits would introduce no problem if the production of food stuffs could be intensified artificially within a small area. Grains, nuts, and perhaps some tubers could also be stored in anticipation of a lean year. The more mobile hunter-gatherer would not have been able to transport any such depository from campsite to campsite. Furthermore, as agricultural technique emerged in response to long-term risks, hunting would be similarly transformed into the herding of domesticated antelope and swine. Human society began to sink deep roots.
For Rousseau and his heirs, this was not a happy development. Among other things, it was the birth of private property. Communitarians always keenly feel the loss of the share-and-share-alike ethos without conceding (apparently without noticing) the tragic fragility attached to that habit of existence—its constant exposure to aberrations in the natural cycle, to incursions of stronger tribes, and so forth. They are more aware of the setbacks which the wandering lifestyle imposes upon nascent individualism: such a “liability” simply leaves them unmoved. Perhaps associating the hunter-gatherer existence with a perpetuation of childhood joys, they cannot see the more independent human being’s evolving sense of self and other, with all of its many moral and spiritual implications, as a significant advance. To them, the farmer bartering potatoes for cheese is but one step removed (and in this supposition, they are right enough) from an entrepreneur charging prices for goods in his inventory. If a hoarder was ever detected in the days of wandering tribes, he must have been stiffly reprimanded by a council of elders. Now he tallies up his sheep as his neighbor’s herd dies of thirst, foreseeing an opportunity to corner the market in wool and mutton.
Let us be fair: there is a modicum of truth in such nostalgia over the child’s lost innocence. When people graduate to greater autonomy—when, in a word, they become adults—we find certain ones rising to the occasion and certain ones degenerating. That religion itself should shift from a placatory reverence for natural forces at this evolutionary phase to embrace a budding sense of conscience, responsibility, and soul is clearly no accident. Contemplating the child’s initiation into such potentially fatal complexities is not without sadness, yet this sadness belongs to a fuller life, a higher reality. Far sadder still would be the child-of-forty-years, a stunted plant which will never bear fruit. If one accepts that human beings achieve their most human level when they achieve a measure of self-awareness, then the farmer’s life must be rated happier than the wanderer’s. No doubt, it is a very different kind of happiness, less spontaneous and less trusting, and so perhaps less intense. But it is also a subsequent happiness, and that which does not graduate to its next natural stage is less successful even though it could be said to have found a kind of eternal youth. Death itself is eternal youth: the unplanted seed never dies because it has never decayed to yield new life… but it has also never lived.
Such mysticism may seem ill-suited to the agriculturalist’s life (though I think those of this persuasion must neither have read Hesiod nor have studied varieties of monasticism). A popular misconception holds that farmers are “rubes”, “rednecks”, and “hayseeds” who toil like mules and are just literate enough to sign their “x” on a deed. The truth is that, like hunting and gathering, farming is usually more pleasurable than the unremittant drudgery of the factory or the chain-gang. The farmer labors mightily for stretches of time during the day and over certain seasons during the year. Yet he does not race a clock, being generally endowed with the luxury of taking breaks as desired; and he knows long months, as Hesiod writes, when there is little more to do than linger near a stove and repair tools.
Those mid-winter months, foul days fit to rip an ox’s hide off his back—
Watch out for them, and the frosts which make of the ground
A hard bed as North Wind howls outside,
That visitor from Thrace ’s wild-horse mountains across the wide sea
Huffing and thrashing until the forests groan.17
If the rural dweller does not profit from such enforced rest by reading, he is nevertheless turned in upon himself with an intensity largely unknown to the urban laborer. Indeed, we easily forget how many deep thinkers of the past were living close to the land in their periods of greatest literary activity (Cicero, Virgil, Sallust… Jefferson, Madison, Thoreau) and how many urban scribblers were somewhat constrained by their fear of censorship or dependency upon volatile patronage (Horace, Statius, Suetonius… Descartes, Pascal, Fénelon). The farm is not the cradle of literacy: that distinction belongs to the city, with its need of accurate record-keeping amid the flux of materials and the crush of the crowd; but the farm turns out to excel at sustaining the best literate habits of thought—self-examination, freedom of inquiry, and assessment of ideas against observed results. The eccentric Tycho Brahe erected massive star-gazing equipment on his estate, and the eccentric Michel de Montaigne penned essays from a sequestered turret in rustic retirement. The courtly masters of Renaissance Italian epic, Arioso and Tasso, wore themselves out with clerical work for ungenerous patrons, in contrast; while the genius of Edgar Allan Poe took leave of this world in a Baltimore gutter.
I am perhaps selecting my examples with prejudice so as to demonstrate, at the very least, that agriculture is not inconsistent with cultivation of the spirit. I submit, at any rate, that we should not assume hives of urban intellectuals such as universities, symphony orchestras, art galleries, and research laboratories to be the ultimate destination of the humane life. More of that anon. Let us develop the simpler end of the contrast first: the hunter-gatherer and the unskilled urban laborer. I understand, of course, that the thousands of human cogs supplied to vast assembly lines in the nineteenth century’s second half came from farms, not from savannas. With regard to its practical form, however, the day-laborer’s existence clearly paralleled the bushman’s more than the cultivator’s. Whatever skills the blue-collar worker brought from the farm were not generally in demand: he was hired, rather, to swing a mallet or an axe.18 He lived from day to day, bringing home just enough to keep his family alive; and after a month or a year of working in one locality, he would be roaming the streets looking for new employment. He might quite literally transport meager belongings and family from one tent city to another as the railroads progressed; or he might transfer his residence from one hovel to another as a job loading barges was replaced by a job digging tunnels. His way of life, if not explicitly migratory, had the shallowest of roots, and of superfluity stockpiled for leaner years he could show not a bite or a dime.
To imagine this urban gypsy’s enjoying a single advantage over his nomadic progenitors on the open plain is a formidable challenge. His housing was usually more secure than a hut of reeds or sods—but it was poorly ventilated, prone to catch fire, and hard to heat or cool with the moist earth sealed far below under concrete and tar. His illnesses sometimes were treatable with drugs that were sometimes affordable—but he was more apt to take sick on a diet of diminished fruits and vegetables and in constant close proximity to hundreds or thousands of other urban dwellers. His clothes were probably not as adequate as the wanderer’s hides and skins. His children often went barefoot on filthy brick streets, while the nomad’s brood plodded a softer earth not steadily washed with horse manure and emptied chamber pots. The air breathed by the former was poisoned by coal dust and the sulfurous exhalations of nearby factories, seldom warmed by sunlight visiting between high-rise tenements and sooty veils; for the latter, air and sun were free and abundant, a daily charity from the heavens.
Quite frankly, I should suppose the life of the nineteenth-century urban laborer to have been more distant from happiness than any previous existence not lived directly under the thumb of an insane, bloodthirsty despot. Even as he died, the ailing wanderer could at least lie his bones down and watch the stars come out (perhaps made safe from large predators by kinsmen who had lofted him high into a tree). The dying laborer had a squalid cot, four cold brick walls, and a tiny window opening upon more gray facades to cheer his last moments. Whatever family hovered near him was probably terrified or dazed before the prospect of an uncertain future; his more extended relations had usually been left far behind in the old country or scattered throughout the New World by the four winds.
In passing, I cannot resist remarking one of the many absurdities awash in current discussions of labor, lifestyle, and happiness. The temporary laborer admitted from Latin America (or illegally shuttled across our southern border) indeed resembles the typical nineteenth-century immigrant from Ireland or Eastern Europe, as we are often reminded, in the following ways: he is unskilled except in agricultural techniques for which there is no demand, his English is imperfect or non-existent, he is scarcely literate even in his native tongue, he has left his extended family and the external supports of his belief system far behind, and he has enjoyed little exposure to state-of-the art conveniences like microwaves and CD-players (or even, perhaps, to televisions and air-conditioned automobiles). We are invited to believe that this person is “bettering” his lot by plunging into our blue-collar work force—invited, especially, by those of liberal political inclinations who believe devoutly in the forward progress of human society. Yet to define progress as the acquisition of microwaves and CD-players sounds very like the overture to a defense mounted by right-wing advocates for bourgeois capitalism. If my observations above about comparative happiness are not hopelessly flawed, then we might just as well expect that the undocumented roofer, gardener, or meat-packer will end up more miserable than he was at his point of origin. To the extent that this is not so, the explanation, I think, must surely be that political corruption and oppression back in his homeland did not permit him to farm a small plot of land in peace; and in that case, his problem becomes an officialdom swollen to intolerable heights of arrogance—not a deficiency of affluence. Our own political commentators may justify the human deluge over our border with flippant quips about the discomforts of bathing in a stream or living without Internet. We should strive, however, to imagine pair of scales wherein one dish is occupied by an overweight contractor munching chips before a wide-screen TV on his day off, the other dish by a slender campesino leaning on his shovel to admire his irrigated chili peppers as chickens cluck in the background…. Which of these two scenes possesses more human value? If there is something missing from both of them, which is likely to be more receptive to a greater degree of thoughtfulness or reverend mystery? That the Left should vote for the former is a shocking surprise. That elements of the so-called Religious Right may end up choosing the latter hints at what a very foolish marriage these naïfs made in plighting their troth to the consumerist cult of ever newer gadgetry.
Of course, both liberal and self-styled conservative would probably claim that the real comparison should be drawn between the farm and the middle-class lifestyle of skilled employment. No one wants to roof houses for thirty years. Just as Irish and Polish immigrants graduated from swinging a pick in mines or a sledge along the railroads to running small shops or doing fine brick work, so the objective of the Mexican fruit-picker is to open a restaurant and eventually send his children to college. Even though today’s blue-collar laborer already enjoys immensely better conditions than his counterpart one hundred years ago, his real happiness awaits him in the future—in circumstances which he himself may not live to see fulfilled, but whose approach will suffice to delight his heart as he glimpses a new world opening before his sons and daughters. The liberal finds in this visionary happiness the vindication of progress which is the soul of his or her philosophy, while the neo-conservative finds in the vast upward thrusting of economic and social ambitions a self-renewing energy to drive the mechanism of consumption. If their motives do not exactly converge in this picture of rising material affluence (and I would suggest that they do, far more than the liberal likes to believe), then they nonetheless share the same behavioral outcomes for society. We witness the convergence, in fact, more clearly every day in these times as we watch our nation’s political landscape endure major upheaval.
And here, precisely, is the most critical juncture of this essay’s quest after economic happiness. Is the farmer’s happiness a match for the burgher’s? Let us at once remove corrupt police, oppressive taxation, and other such factors from the equation on the farmer’s side: we are not envisioning an ill-starred Mexican peasant, but a successful planter who feeds his family with a bit left to spare. Likewise, let us imagine that our roofer now owns a small business, with a fleet of pick-up trucks bearing his name in constant cruise about town. Who would question that the latter is the “better off” of the two? He has invested his substantial profits in stocks and bonds, he has moved into his “dream home”, his children will attend not just any college but rather one of their choice… he has achieved an estimable degree of control over his life.
Or has he? I wish to examine that assumption very closely, for I find it dubious under the surface at several points. In the first place, we can scarcely suppose that any human being feels a mission in life to shingle houses. Let us harbor no romantic illusions about our man’s success: he started out in the business because it produced a paycheck, and his persistence and hard work have merely produced bigger paychecks. One supposes that hammering on shingles all the livelong day offers few spiritual rewards, and one readily imagines that those who do the hammering may even loathe their work at times. But the shingler is a shingler: he cannot switch his skills to painting murals or designing bridges. He is stuck—more or less for life—in a trade which happened to make money for him, and money is all he will ever really have to show for “success” in that trade. Is that such a bad thing? Can he not use his money to take guitar lessons or travel the old country or collect sports memorabilia? The liberal/neo-conservative vision asks us to accept that our man will have enough energy left over during his brief vacations and his silver years to supplement a life of indifferent, perhaps repellent drudgery with spiritual awakening.
The farmer, on the other hand, lives every day of his life shoulder-to-shoulder with certain basic truths of life. He follows birth, growth, and decline; he studies what his dependents need from the process to secure their own survival; and he exchanges hard labor, not for another’s vain displays, but for personal necessity. To rephrase the last of these insights, he understands the spiritual value of work—the purifying quality of honest labor applied to honest ends about which Wendell Berry wrote so lyrically. If the exchange rate of sweat for inner peace is not exactly a “basic fact of life”, it is closer to the foundation than the investment banker and the stockbroker care to admit. I shall argue that its absence from our present habit of life is indeed the fatal flaw in our system.
For such peace, in terms of historical breadth, is very soon lost after the move to the city: life in town is about making a wage, not about bringing in a harvest. Growing food can never be ignoble unless one finds life itself ignoble; and in that case, one chooses to starve and shuffle off this mortal coil. Nothing in the city, however, directly produces food. At most, food is processed or distributed here—food from the country. Already, even among butchers and grocers, chores are performed directly for pay, which may or may not be spent upon sufficient and healthy sustenance; and the work, being often heavy and repetitive (lifting, cutting, sorting—over and over and over), is less bestializing than mechanizing: i.e., it reduces man, not to a dumb beast straining in the traces, but to a mindless appendage taking its cues from conveyor belts and automatic doors. Such service cannot be a setting for human happiness, I maintain. Yet so contagious are its dismal effects that they tend to reach out into the country like tentacles, poisoning even the farmer’s domestic economy. Farmers begin to grow, not what their family needs, but what city-dwellers want. When enough city-dwellers want country-grown products badly enough, they pay top dollar, and the richer farmers buy up the holdings of the poorer ones. Since the poorest usually have the misfortune to be tenants, as in Mexico —or as in Ireland during the Potato Famine or in England during the Enclosure period—the humble cultivator profits not a whit from having soil at his fingertips. He may not even survive: he may starve, as perhaps two million did in Ireland . In that tragic venue, one scholar writes,
… food would be transported out of the district where a poor harvest had occurred. Usually it would go to a town or city, for the city-dwellers also needed sustenance. The country people would sell their food to pay their rent and to buy food later at an elevated price. The district’s residents, therefore, would see lorries or barges carrying their food away, even though they themselves were in dire need. It is scarcely surprising that there were often attacks mounted on these lorries and barges.19
Tenant farmers in western Ireland dropped like sheep at the slaughter during about half a decade, not because their potatoes were blighted, but because everything they grew besides potatoes was carted away to generate profit in the city. Similar circumstances, less homicidal but just as unnatural, exist in northern Mexico today.
I digress from my argument precisely to stress that the servile farmer, in constant need of government subsidies and tax breaks just to survive, is indeed unnatural—a reflexive creation, as it were, of our rural population’s mass-exodus to the high-tech city’s artificial environment. I return now to the main point: that the true farmer holds his fate in his hands quite literally. He can grow his own food, and he can repair or extend his own house. He is the model of nuclear independence. The burgher must proffer money for food and shelter—and I shall mean not just the green-grocer or the meat-packer, but also the publisher, the lawyer, the advertiser, and the professor. Such people are commonly viewed as having reached the pinnacle of civilized life. There is a strain upon their existence, however, which remains latent in the best of times, yet which must sooner or later, as one generation succeeds another, assert itself: they all provide services to the public, and public taste must eventually prove a tyrant. Richard Weaver, enamored as he virtuously was with the self-sacrifice of medieval chivalry, viewed its lapse as cracking the door open for the marketer:
… the disappearance of the heroic ideal is always accompanied by the growth of commercialism. There is a cause-and-effect relation here, for the man of commerce is by the nature of things a relativist; his mind is constantly on the fluctuating values of the market place, and there is no surer way for him to fail than to dogmatize and moralize about things.20
Weaver’s noble naiveté is itself on display, I suspect, in this pedigree. More likely, it is the growth of commercialism which strangles the heroic ideal, for the burgher need not start out venal and cynical. Many have been known, indeed, to perish in high principle rather than adjust to the “demands of the market”. The mid-nineteenth century witnessed the glorious triumph of the middle class—and the pillorying of a few hold-out free spirits who did not bend a knee to mass taste. Baudelaire was successfully prosecuted for obscenity because (among other reasons) his poem “Delphine et Hippolyte” dared to address the subject of lesbian love. Were he a resident poet on the English faculty of a state-funded university today, the same poem would earn him summary dismissal because its treatment of the subject is censorious! If a poet must thus adjust his credo, professionals with a Yellow Pages listing must be rigidly faithful to the whim of the day. A lawyer who refused cases on moral grounds (who chased from his door, say, a husband wishing to reduce his child-support or a retailer plotting to exploit a contract’s fine print) would soon be unable to pay his office’s rent. A landlord who refused to raise rent above the prevailing mean would soon find his property being defaced by disrespectful tenants, though a few deserving poor would also bless his name. Everyone who sells a service incurs at least the potential risk of having to play the prostitute. Our freedom to say what we believe in the city is severely circumscribed by the necessity of eating and finding shelter; for if we choose to play the prophet instead of the prostitute, who will pay for our supper?21
One may credibly maintain that the Renaissance poet or artist enjoyed more such freedom than we do, in fact. He had only to win over one well-healed patron: we must win over the masses—we must find a “market”. Liberal intellectuals want the government to stand in for Lorenzo de Medici, assuring creative free-spirits of a regular honorarium. Yet where do the representatives of popular government derive their tastes, if not from the people? The bare truth is not only that most people lack taste, but that the general taste must inevitably grow worse if commercial capitalism has free rein. Upon what do people spend money, once they have accounted for the necessities (and recall that we are now scrutinizing the successful bourgeois)? They opt for convenience. Our technology excels at spewing out new conveniences with a volcanic kind of energy, so these affluent expenditures are self-accelerating: the more cellular telephones are bought, the more investment will be drawn into developing cell phones that render previous versions obsolete. The public’s taste makes a decisive shift toward embracing the new per se—and worship of trend has always been a defining factor in poor taste, since its focus is on ostentatious display rather than on engagement of intellectual faculties.
To be sure, such acquisitive “feeding frenzies” generate new jobs. More trends, and the acceleration of existing trends, translates into more demand, which means more producers and more hucksters. More and more workers will be able to receive pay doing frivolous, even degrading acts in order to buy food; and, if the degradation grows too palpable, perhaps they will have enough money left over to buy enough frivolity themselves that they will not be left alone in a quiet room at week’s end contemplating the utter futility of their existence.
I am back on the humble worker’s gritty doorstep again, a destination which has a hidden magnetism. We are observing an epochal economic shift, in fact, wherein the white-collar executive is watching his shirt change color. As machines do more and more of our complex labor, human workers are finding that more and more job openings are for the “human machine” once again—the low-level, repetitive task which once characterized sweatshops, which machines faintly lifted from our shoulders for a while, but which now may be done more cheaply by two hungry hands than by sophisticated equipment. The engineer and the accountant are unemployed, their work “outsourced” to countries whose newly educated are “happy” just to get off the assembly line; and our manual laborers are seeing either a similar exit of their jobs to hungrier shores or a furtive awarding of those jobs to foreign nationals imported under the law’s radar. Perhaps the best chance today at a high-paying domestic position is the software company whose creations will at last render even work-for-room-and-board engineers and accountants redundant. (Employees of tax services already do little more than “key” numbers where “prompted” on a screen.) Of course, the day when computer programs create new computer programs cannot be far away.
On that day, we shall witness the sickly birth of the world’s first fully “service” economy, The Age of the Servant. Some, perhaps many, will be waiting tables and emptying garbage cans. A modestly more prosperous group will be driving trucks and pointing the drills and nozzles of heavy equipment in the right direction—but this, too, will be essentially a custodial duty. The more prosperous still—the one group which will yet enjoy a long shot at striking it rich—will be peddling various stimulants chemical and electronic, legally and illegally, online and in the street. Stimulants, sleeping pills, fantasy games, the alternative realities we call “movies”… and let us not forget pornography, the prostitute’s passport to a relatively healthy prosperity… such are the growth industries of the future. People will participate in them because they have to eat—and eating means food, and food means pay, and pay means awakening and exacerbating every latent whim in a mass public whose ashes may yet be fanned into a flame.
But what if we grew our own food?
V. The Suburban Farmer
I will at once reassure the reader that I have not taken leave of my senses and do not propose the evacuation of our cities to repopulate the countryside. The farming of the past must remain in the past, for all but a few determined eccentrics like Wendell Berry. Whenever we hatch a plan for improving the future (and here I speak of a “return to happiness”, not the much more suspect “progress”), we must not ask of our neighbors what we ourselves would or could not do; or, if we happen to be Wendell Berry, we must ask rather less of them, understanding that some spirits are but faintly willing and some flesh very weak indeed.
Taking full account of human inertia, then—of our instinctive resistance to change when its vector does not carry us toward greater convenience (what is progress to us but a shift toward less work and pain?)—I can envision several entirely feasible means of bringing agriculture to our residential suburbs. Technology would assist us in many of these efforts; some are mere common sense, however, with minimal “upgrading”, the equivalent of cultivating a backyard garden a little more seriously. Bear in mind that the motive for my proposals is terrestrial happiness: I seek to expound nothing less than how a contemporary human being might best supply his or her basic material needs without loss of self-respect, subservience to a vile regimen of collective intemperance, and the moral exhaustion attendant upon living only for surfaces.
• Conventional Methods: Let us start with the family garden. Tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, beans, peas, and other staples of a healthy diet can be grown in some variety just about everywhere, and with relatively little effort. (I find that, other than regular watering, most of my ministrations only torment my plants.) Major problems can develop, however. Some residences may have precious little real estate to spare for a garden, especially closer to downtown areas. Families with young children and pets will also find their produce under constant attack. Then, too, the weather is undependable in some regions; and natural competitors for the fruits of one’s labor, like birds, moles, and squirrels, can also be immensely annoying. I am led, therefore, to propose my first major adaptation.
• The Greenhouse Roof: Most residences reflect a major investment in attic insulation. We are warned by experts that the cool air we churn out artificially inside our domestic domain during the summer and the warm air during the winter literally travels through the ceiling, incurring the social and political costs of higher energy demands as well as personal costs to our checkbook. Now that glass can be manufactured which resists hail at least as well as wood shingles do, why do we waste these 2,000 square feet or so of solar energy—why do we actually expend energy to repel energy? If our residence’s roof were a greenhouse, our living quarters could be just as well insulated throughout the year. (I am less confident, frankly, that this would be so in summertime down South: but greenhouses can be ventilated, and leafy plants absorb a good bit of heat.) The greenhouse would be impervious to birds, baseballs, and burrowing pests. Its contents could grow year-round. It would be a very pleasant retreat for adults after a hard day—both more sedative and less wasteful than, say, a sprawl in a hot-tub. Its light chores would occupy children who are currently burning their eyes out on PlayStation as they cultivate nothing but a criminal ignorance of how the natural world works. Hardier plants—roots and tubers, for instance—could still be grown in the back yard, but the more delicate species would find safe haven up in the roof.
• Nut Trees for Protein: Unfortunately, trees that bear nuts take a long time to grow—but landscapers and surface-sensitive, manicure-minded “yuppies” have waged an unreasonable war against this crucial variety of plant for decades now during which many a pecan orchard might have risen loftily. If one can endure the nuisance of having “rubbish” fall all over the lawn at certain times of year, then the nut is manna from heaven. It is that rarest of finds, a plant-produced source of protein. Nuts also survive in storage a very long while, unlike more familiar protein-intense foods. Most of us consume them in holiday deserts, or perhaps lightly as condiments on certain dishes; but they have lately been found to have numerous health benefits quite in addition to their deposits of protein, even as conventional protein-powerhouses like cheese and red meat have acquired a spotted reputation.
• Livestock for Milk: Nevertheless, milk and cheese remain the time-honored means of surviving handily and healthily for poor folks. Slaughtering animals for their meat has always been a dubious proposition: the harvest of steaks may be rich, but their source is gone for good once the axe falls. (Studies have indicated that the Hindu prohibition against killing cattle has probably allowed a great many families to survive on milk that would have starved on steak over the centuries.) The milk cow (or goat, for that matter) consumes a repository of the sun’s energy not accessible to us mammals—grass—and turns it into easily ingested protein, renewable throughout the animal’s lifetime. The milk cow is the mythical glass that never drains.
With none of my proposals have I encountered such weak-kneed, wide-eyed, pusillanimous incredulity as I have in arguing for a neighborhood milk cow. Our urbanized nation seems to believe collectively that udders squeezed by our own hands would produce a noisome liquid excrement sure to poison all who might consume it, and that the animal itself would bury lawn and driveway under its “chips” until flies were breeding on our necks and acrid stench inducing swoons in our womenfolk. A clear plastic jug at the grocery store, sealed and stamped by richly remunerated federal and state officials, is required to exorcise the malodorous demons issuing from the cow’s bowels like Greeks from the Trojan Horse. The word “squeamish” hardly begins to capture the extent of a rather contemptible naiveté frequent even among those who style themselves environmentalists.
Of course, cows do expel fecal material. It makes excellent fertilizer: gardeners routinely pay several dollars a bag for it. The animal’s stall would certainly have to be cleaned regularly and the “harvest” spread and watered into the ground. The flies and vermin drawn to such an operation, however, are no more formidable when the “pet” has hooves than when it has paws—and Americans often lodge the litter boxes of their precious cats in the kitchen! The unsavory chores involved in maintaining a clean premises would do our spoiled children a world of good; while the process of sterilizing the gathered milk, though usually redundant in cases where a single animal is being housed, could be accomplished expeditiously with simple technology, and would likewise teach valuable “hands-on” lessons of the sort that our mammoth education system seems so hard put to supply. That Third World nations are notoriously inept at taking hygienic precautions with their livestock and poultry (viz. the impending threat of Avian Influenza) is a cautionary tale, to be sure; but to assume that our government is providing for our welfare in such matters better than we ourselves could do is not only a disappointing response in a free society—it is inaccurate in specific cases, and likely to become ever more so as our public resources grow more strained.
I might add that cows and goats, in cropping the ample lawns to which Middle American suburbia is so partial, would spare us the misery of lawnmowers and grass-blowers—“conveniences” which not only guzzle gas unconscionably, but also pollute at a far higher rate per gallon than any vehicle on the road. I do not know of any study of the probable toxic emissions inhaled by the wretches condemned to lives of pushing this gadgetry around day after day, all year long. Apparently, we are so eager not to deprive them of their labor that we cannot be bothered to entertain the notion of their health’s being irreversibly damaged.
I envision a cow being grazed up and down every residential block. The milk provided would probably suffice for as many as a dozen families—or perhaps two cows could be stabled. When I consider how many billions of dollars we invest in pets annually, I cannot imagine that a slight shift to more functional varieties of animal wandering about inside our picket fences would call for much of a sacrifice.
• Piscine Protein: Another protein source occurs to me, but I confess that the subject soon carries me out of my depth. Victorian novelist Standish O’Grady wrote a thrilling novella titled Between Sea and Land wherein a young man becomes trapped in a network of dark caves and can sustain life only by virtue of the fish that a family of seals shares with him. Eventually, the castaway feels himself declining and knows that he must work harder to escape: the diet of fish does not sufficiently restore his energy. Whether there is a nutritional basis to this fictional peripety, I do not know. Fish may offer rather less protein than red meat does—but it is healthier in other respects, and I am not suggesting baked carp as an exclusive source of protein, in any case.
My ignorance is more profound in matters logistical. Having never raised fish, I do not know if they could be brought to maturity in a domestic aquarium quickly enough a give them a steady place on the menu. Certainly we all find an aquarium a very relaxing prospect, however. To pipe in a little oxygen and feed the tank’s scaly occupants with scraps would not pose much expense. I assume that the piscina would be an indoor set-up, since an open pool outdoors would draw insects and vermin and also create a hazard for small children. Even a modest residence could easily afford the cubic footage needed to graze a prospering school of fish, I should think; and the problems involving cost-effective population density, vulnerability of the fish to small changes in the tank’s temperature, the product’s appeal to human palates, and so forth could probably be resolved by selecting carefully among various breeds.
I insist that these strategies for feeding one’s household, and others like them which have not occurred to me but must be evident to practiced gardeners, do not demand of us a major alteration of our lifestyle. On the contrary, they demand that we resist the highly artificial lifestyle which has been thrust upon us by narrow economic interests. Nothing could be more natural than plucking a snack off a tree, and nothing is more embedded in the history of human experimentation than coaxing fruits from the earth in slightly engineered circumstances. The hesitation in which our misgivings torpidly hold is very like the mesmerism in which the automobile keeps us courting our own ruin. Consider the evidence. For centuries, human settlements have mingled residential functions with commercial functions. People ate meals behind their shop and slept above it, as they indeed continue to do in whatever towns around the globe have not been turned inside-out by highways. To all appearances, this is the natural way for humans to socialize at a higher level where private property exists and commodities are exchanged.22 In our own nation, the compartmentalized city, wherein one must navigate traffic to transport children to school, reach a place of employ, or make even the simplest purchases, is scarcely half a century old. Yet we already find the image of corner grocery stores and neighborhood repair shops so outlandish as to be fatally stigmatized. The picture makes too much sense—it is too childishly easy! If it were not fraught with hidden difficulties and dangers, we would already be modeling it in our daily lives. Besides, it is also archaic (for even we Americans are not such ignoramuses as to be wholly unaware that we indeed used to live this way). Answers for complex problems never involve turning the clock back: the very idea blasphemes against the sacred cult of Progress.
Yet the multi-functional neighborhood and the agriculture-intensive residence would solve many of our major social and economic (not to mention spiritual) problems in the same manner—and one must confess that it is a pretty obvious manner, and also more than a little beholden to past lessons.
• Traffic would be reduced. Growing food would give at least one of the two adults heading a household a good reason to stay home. Clearly, the greater number of people remaining in their residences throughout the day would represent more potential customers for the café or the bookstore across the street. As life in the suburbs became diverse, residents with the option of staying or leaving each morning would choose to stay: their home street would now seem an enjoyable place. Expenditures of fuel would perhaps be halved (much to the dismay of those whose joy depends upon our national oil dependency), less tax money would be spent on paying traffic cops and maintaining roads, hospitals would be less strained, insurance rates would drop, and the one American in about five or six thousand who dies every year in car wrecks would have to find another ferry across the River Styx.
• Crime would plummet. With residents staying in their neighborhoods, fewer homes would be abandoned all day long to pose tempting targets for burglars. A man would never be wandering the streets out of work if he owned property, for he would always have the work—the noble work—of tending his crops and livestock. (I shall say more anon about my casting the urban exile here as a man.) Young people, who tend to commit crimes incidentally as they cruise streets far from any adult capable of putting a name to their faces, would have chores to do. Chores done, they would also have recreational locations to walk to a few blocks away. Perhaps most important, the ethos of hypocrisy, of self-praising venality, which eats deep into our nation’s soul—which inspires the bromide that delivering pizzas from a buggy with an illuminated sausage on its roof is the proper path to success—would be undermined; for young men want most of all not to be lackeys, and a planter stands on his own two feet without bowing or scraping. It would be impossible to calculate how much criminal behavior in our time—specifically, how much gang-related drug-dealing—originates in a refusal among young males to “step and fetch it” for a few bucks a week… but the figure must be a sizable one. Is agriculture really a solution—or is it, perhaps, a potential magnifier of the problem? I have utterly no doubt that some readers will instantly have formed in their minds the thought, “These greenhouse roofs will be mere hothouses for marijuana!” My answer is that Americans will stop wanting to anesthetize themselves when their lives stop becoming so painfully absurd and petty that a frontal view of them is intolerable.
• Public health will vastly improve. Besides a fall-off in annual traffic fatalities, the resuscitated neighborhood where residents actually buy and sell products and services and grow their own food will obviously elicit more pedestrian circulation and favor a better average diet. Among the plain facts in support of my proposals is the nutritional and hygienic superiority of food straight off the vine to food canned for months or else picked green and shipped (all too often) in contaminated containers. Frankly, fresh fruit and vegetables also taste better. Children are more likely to eat them. By default, food of the “fast” and “junk” variety, with its whopping doses of sugar and trans-fatty acids, will occupy a reduced portion of the daily diet. Adults will also live under less stress day to day. Relieved of fighting heavy traffic, secure in the knowledge that an abusive boss cannot suddenly cut them off from all sustenance, and attached to the pacifying rhythms of the natural cycle, they will be less prone to cardiac disease, insomnia, and perhaps some kinds of cancer. They will enjoy life more: that, remember, was our point of departure.
• Our young people, who have arrived at an extremely worrisome state, will perhaps be reclaimed for humanity’s higher endeavors. I shall not write the essay-in-itself which poises to spring from this assertion. Readers may draw their own conclusions, or rate mine on their own scale. I simply observe that a child raised to be intimately familiar with true necessity, natural cycle, a disdain for gaudy frivolity, and a high regard for thrift is much more apt to govern his actions soberly as an adult than a child rigged with an iPod, a cell phone, a GPS , a laptop, and whatever other gear for whose possession a seductively pandering “culture” primes him with yearning. I will add, quite editorially and without claim to objectivity, that those who discern something distinctly Christian in the workings of our present system seem to me a far greater mystery than the god of goodness.
It should be added that the agriculture-intensive residence, quite apart from policies about traffic flow, would be an inestimable boon to struggling Third World nations. Apologists for unbridled capitalism and free trade typically point to images of squalid huts in Southeast Asia , quite without indoor plumbing and overrun by chickens and pigs, as examples of the living standard from which we must rescue the planet. They seem to suppose that the toxic yellow clouds which satellite photos reveal to have settled permanently over “progressive” population centers like Hong Kong are a small price to pay for a carpeted apartment with a toilet and air-conditioning. Yet the truth is that small farmers, whether in Vietnam or Chihuahua or Nigeria , suffer primarily because of abusive tenantry systems and because of ignorance about hygiene and helpful technology. There is no need to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Such populations would eat better, have a more secure future, enjoy more autonomy, and feed fewer of the problems that threaten entire regions and continents—they would be, in short, happier—if they could just stay put and be introduced to a few advantageous techniques. The progressives who masquerade as conservatives, however, would prefer to transform them into heavy consumers of oil, junk food, and electronic entertainment; for massive infusions of uncritical, disoriented, easily seduced customers are the cannon fodder of bull markets.
I conclude this vision of the independent urban farmer with a modest Philippic, whose tone will seem more political than it should. Except perhaps in an attic-turned-greenhouse, crops cannot be raised without land—and even the glass attic perches on a piece of real estate. The citizen must not be charged for the right to live and grow food on his own property. Otherwise, we might as well break his hoe and spade and send him back to the pizza parlor. Specifically, government has no moral right to levy a property tax if the assertions of the Declaration of Independence are yet held as valid. Individual citizens own their land. They do not lease it from state or federal (let alone local) authorities, or hold it upon royal sufferance of same. For the traditional citizen—whose virtues I should like us to recover—land is both home and food. We do not rent the food which we feed to our children: we do not tuck them into bed at night calmly resigned to the thought that a SWAT team may show up at the witching hour and eject us all from our borrowed residence. Yet when I informally surveyed a group of about fifty college freshmen recently, almost all of them agreed with the statement, “Property ultimately belongs to the government: private ownership is a privilege which may be revoked in times of crisis.” Most of the young people in my geographical area, furthermore, would style themselves conservative. In their enthusiasm to give centralized government a carte blanche to pursue malefactors, they seem quite willing to relinquish their “inalienable rights” upon a bureaucrat’s whim.
If the property tax is not declared unconstitutional, one may easily foresee the day when a man who owns his residence free and clear and raises on his suburban plot much of the food his family needs will nevertheless have to sell up because he cannot pay his annual fine. The situation, I submit, is intolerable. The tyrant’s reasoning seems to be that property-owners tend to have families, and that property taxes go largely to the funding of schools: ergo, let the former pay the latter. Yet surely the state as a collective has a profound interest both in allowing families to survive financially and in striving to educate all children adequately. Where collectivism is justified, our rulers mete out individual levies; where the individual’s intimate household duties are concerned, they assert the preemptive interest of the vast social unit. If local government is convinced that parents should bear upon their backs the majority of a titanic public school budget, then it should withdraw from the schooling business entirely and allow parents to fund schools of their own choice out of their own pockets. That failing, such revenues must be raised as sales taxes, paid by all.23
Richard Weaver denominated ownership of private property “the last metaphysical right”, emphasizing that the land over which one has sweated and bled to build a house and grow food is something very like one’s body, and perhaps even more like one’s soul.
Private right defending noble preference is what we wish to make possible by insisting that not all shall be dependents of the state. Thoreau, finding his freedom at Walden Pond , could speak boldly against government without suffering economic excommunication.24
The political Left, which is so fond of lionizing whistle-blowers and free spirits, should be able to recognize the value of feeding oneself from one’s land even after strings have been pulled to dismiss one from a sensitive, influential position. Since the New Right seems unmoved by such issues, perhaps a nostalgic liberalism should step into the gap. It was classical liberalism, after all, which cried foul when Irish landlords elevated the rent on any tenant who improved his shanty with hard labor and initiative. One such enterprising peasant on the Aran Islands found a plank which had washed ashore and hauled it home to make a door of it. The bailiff sniffed out the affair, and the poor wretch was sentenced to one hundred days of hauling stones to create Lord Charley’s precious enclosures.25 A third of a year… approximately the same sentence served by the average American taxpayer annually in order to fund the services which he is deemed too stupid to provide for himself—and, of course, to salary the lords who administer said services.
VI. Work and Gender: The Unhappy Man
When I talk to people about the issues discussed in this treatise, I detect little disagreement with the assertion that we are a spendthrift society, that the cost of necessities is outpacing the average wage, that consumerism is turning our culture increasingly coarse, and that the urban sprawl created by our oil-based habit of life is distasteful and oppressive. The one claim about which I am most likely to be challenged is the most critical to my case: that large numbers of people are sincerely, profoundly unhappy doing the labors essential in a high-tech service economy. I have compared these labors to prostitution. Everything will eventually become marketing, I warned, and the market’s target will eventually be only Ortega y Gasset’s “mass man”, whose needs are visceral rather than spiritual and whose responses are reflexive rather than reflective. The seller “shows some thigh”, spills more perfume, circles seductively and purrs—even the computer programmer is equipping a given site to do more of this sort of thing with greater effectiveness. And the programmer, I have also opined, must at last devise programs that program: the destiny of market-driven technology is to erase human beings entirely from all productive ranks of the labor force—to reassign them from the ratio to the libido. Then we have only Pandars and their Cressids.
Yet women, especially, often reject my formulation. Perhaps this is because they have been denied general admittance to the salaried workforce for so long that they are still enjoying the freedom it offers relative to the narrow duties of wife and mother. I doubt it, however. Few female college students who cross my path grew up in a household where the mother did not have a paying job. I suspect that the rift between male and female perceptions starts at a much deeper point. It seems to me that women are more social, less keenly aware of the wall that separates Self and Other. They are more receptive to persuasion and compromise, less apt to view a concession as cowardly or traitorous. A fine little book in whose publication I once collaborated attributed the fork in this ethical road to childbirth, women having been raised in the knowledge that they might one day carry life in them, men having been raised to know that their body could never possibly nourish another’s. Call this Freud stood on his ear if you will: it is an assessment with much to recommend it. The author summarizes:
As a result of this detached perspective, men tend to see things more abstractly than women and to be more suspicious than women of mixed motives and combined purposes. They tend to think in Platonic ideals, and to act in Stoical defiance of compromise.26
Howard Schwartz has approached the same issue from a more straightforwardly psychoanalytic direction. He believes (if I follow his complex argument) that young men today are insecure in their manhood because they grow up seeing their mothers occupying the father’s traditional role of provider and head of the household.27 Though these two views may appear opposed, both concur that 1) men and women evaluate their experience differently, 2) the woman’s values are typically less trenchant than the man’s, and 3) the woman is playing a more active role today in supporting the household. For the former advocate, I should quickly add, sees women as filling more jobs and at a higher level precisely because so much work now consists of recruiting a clientele rather than lifting barrels.
I suspect that we have here the origin of a dissonance in our society whose painful strains we have not yet begun to distangle from the many other sources of cacophony around us. That is, we have not noticed that men, particularly, are unhappy. They will often ascribe the professional bottleneck which they feel closing in around them as the devilry of women: women unwilling to stay home and tend to their family, women without a family robbing a “family man” of his livelihood, women preoccupied with promotion by hook or by crook not concerning themselves about the product’s quality, etc. Such resentment, I now believe, arises fundamentally from two consecutive conditions: 1) jobs in our service-dominated economy increasingly involve persuasion and compromise, and 2) women are simply better at such jobs. Even without the epochal entry of the New Woman into the workforce, I think men would have found themselves confronted more and more with jobs that grated on their nature. If it is indeed true that the space between magnanimous concession and pusillanimous surrender is much more slender for a man, then most men are probably less suited to placating angry customers, winning over prospective clients, creating broadly pleasant settings, and so forth. Furthermore, men who excel at such work despite their aversion to it probably grow far more cynical—more jaundiced by daily survival’s sordid league with hypocrisy—than their female counterparts; for the female would be less likely to perceive her accommodations as doing violence to high principle. She would emerge relatively happy, because she would not carry home with her the heavy burden of having been two-faced.
Stunningly, I find that historical overviews of gender roles in the workplace never seem to take much account of how seldom sociability was required of the man when he was the exclusive breadwinner. The hunter was a silent loner compared to his chattering womenfolk, left behind to dig roots and pick berries; the farmer had only his horse and his ox to talk to most of the day while his wife called after the children and borrowed sugar from a neighbor down the road. The stevedore, the bricklayer, the carpenter—all went about their tasks with a kind of introversion. Had they paused too long to chat, they would probably have been reprimanded or dismissed. Yet as townships of the same era (say, the sixteenth century) were beginning to burgeon with small shops, women were already prominent. The baker’s wife served the public while the baker tended the oven, and the wine merchant’s wife filled glasses while her mate rolled another barrel up from the cellar.
Only since about World War II—just as the advanced technology of cars and televisions and telephones was transforming Western culture in so many other ways—have men found the more reticent occupations known to them for centuries drying up and blowing away. The image of the “hard-selling” male huckster, barking out prices of used cars or wheeling and dealing with brokers over two phones, is a potent one in the popular mind. Yet the fact remains that this figure is more myth than reality, as if males were reassuring themselves through his cartoon-like antics that they, too, had a role in the brave new world. How on earth does a grown man truly become excited to the point of shouting about the prices of automobiles? He must be either obsessively greedy (and greed, like fear, is an unmanly passion) or else playing out a game—a literal role, complete with script. As a schoolboy will play the fool for laughs, so the grown man will leap and howl like an ape in the knowledge that he is not his part, and in the devout hope that his audience will understand the “joke”. My own suspicion is that most men would be thoroughly embarrassed if they supposed other men to be taking their “act” at face value. The car salesman, like the charismatic preacher and the Dionysiac sports announcer, relies upon his fellow males to appreciate the exigencies of his role—to understand the genre—if he values his manhood.
If men could stay home and labor with their hands to produce food for their children, how many would prefer to hustle around the car lot for commissions all day? Certainly I have elicited from far more men than women in my questioning of college freshmen an affirmative that self-employment is a significant personal objective. Indeed, women frequently register an aversion to “flying solo”: they seem to prize the interaction of an intricate office hierarchy, or at least to dread the loneliness of being thrown upon their own devices. The ideal situation, then, appears to be that the woman of the house should sally forth to trade words behind a desk while the man of the house is milking the cow and digging spuds. We are warned by some that this reverses the traditional paradigm—but I have stressed that such “traditions” have increasingly contradicted their more reverend versions. “Man as provider” is an icon positing a competitive, almost adversarial relation to the environment. The bourgeois rendition of this drama into dollars and cents immediately raised questions about the clerk’s or shopkeeper’s virility, as I have just explained; but at least the womenfolk back home continued to enjoy numerous social outlets. An unstable balance seems finally to have been upset in our time. Having considered why the man lost his poise, let us examine what happened to the woman at the same time.
By 1950, children no longer stayed home for their schooling; cars emptied out neighborhoods every morning; radio and television kept indoors most of those few residents who had not abandoned the suburbs for the day; air-conditioning made the den cooler than the porch even in summertime; and growing corporations transferred their employees from city to city, disrupting ties with old friends and extended family. On top of all that, women now did less work at home than ever, their washing and cleaning chores greatly alleviated by machines… but the social vacuum into which these very sociable beings were forced, I contend, was the deciding factor. Women wanted to work—but they wanted to work in company.
Would the man be content to bring food quite literally to the table if his wife were bringing far more paychecks to the bank account? Basing my response, once again, only on a great many informal interviews and personal observations, I should say that men worry less about their earnings than about what women may think of those earnings. That is, men tend to feel that women look down upon them for drawing humble salaries—and in this, alas, their fears are far from groundless.28 The vulgar relegation of all our labors to a money standard is in many ways a consequence of the American male’s trying to please the New Woman while competing with her. (There can be little question that the coarsening of our popular culture has overlapped the influx of females into the workforce.) The woman seems to read a large salary as proof that a person can successfully negotiate society’s many roadblocks and hurdles—a quality which she much admires. Frustrated by this standard, men are more apt than women to respond to it by pulling out all moral stops, for they cannot grasp how a facility with social challenges would be the game’s ultimate end rather than money. After all, money buys food—it provides—while flattering various interests is vile sycophancy. As Thomas More’s outspoken Raphael Hythloday puts it in the first book of Utopia, “A man of courage is more likely to steal than to cringe.”29 Well, then, if it’s paychecks the woman wants… by God, the man is going to bring her the biggest checks she ever saw!
That money causes divorces has become a cliché. Yet I believe it would be more accurate to say that a basic misunderstanding between the sexes about the nature of work is what fractures marriages. I am convinced that few women would complain when seeing their husbands haul basket-loads of succulent vegetables in from the garden, and few men when seeing their wives go off to a day of high-intensity “relationships”. Men would be doing their work, and women theirs. The children of our urban farmer, I hasten to add, would be surrounded by grandparents, extended family, and trustworthy neighbors, as they were for centuries before we started changing residences every three years. Aging relatives themselves would be more likely to spend their last days among those who care about them rather than in an antiseptic cell, for at least one household adult would usually be nearby. How can we suppose that things could never be this way again when they were precisely this way for yesterdays time out of mind?
Yet the single most visible benefit of self-sufficient food-growing remains political. Happy people must be free people—free, that is, in the Burkean sense of having enough autonomy to sustain their life’s enriching web of associations.30 The Stoic would say that everyone always has autonomy—that one can always decide to starve rather than labor as a slave, or to be executed rather than adore a tyrant. Stoics, however, tend not to be family men: whatever web holds them is thin, simple, and easily rent. For those of us who want to keep our mates and our children relatively healthy and secure, we must be free to give them what they need and also to speak out against folly, vice, and corruption or to refuse service to arrogant boars and unprincipled schemers. We must have the freedom to say “no” without saddling our loved ones with dire consequences.
Western culture has probably reached a more critical juncture than it has known since Christendom and a millennium of literate culture took refuge from Goths, Vikings, and Muslim holy-warriors on a few rocky, windswept islands. Within a decade or so, we shall learn (those of us who know what we are watching) whether an oligarchy will assign our work, our tastes, our candidates, and our amusements to us for the ensuing century—or whether, instead, we shall willingly embrace the “poverty” attendant upon a self-sufficiency in all that matters. The emerging oligarchic elite already has us crinkling our noses at the word “isolationist”. The truth is, however, that the independent citizen of a democratic republic is and chooses to be isolated in the formation of his value judgments. He makes up his own mind, and then he proceeds to seek or to form a community of fellow believers. In his inviolable residence, surrounded by cultivated patches that sustain him, the independent grower needn’t fret unduly about China ’s calling in our debt, about the Middle East ’s refusing to sell us more oil, about an immigrant population’s rejecting English in the public forum, about the central government’s shrugging off its Social Security promises. He will be impossible to finesse into Hobson’s Choice when his “leaders” announce with feigned regret that it’s either the Devil or the Deep Blue Sea . He and his independent neighbors will understand the true meaning of “neighborhood”. They will comprehend that no one need ever eat with the Devil who cannot be lured to Hell’s table. For this citizen will always be able to stock his own table, with no thanks to anyone but God and his own two hands.
No wonder the oligarchs dread him!
16 Even dental health, after generations of trial and error with diet, is often better in traditional societies than we might suppose. Tag O’Buckley, an itinerant tailor whose story-telling prowess was known to Frank O’Connor and others, claimed during an interview recorded in 1942 that “the white flour did more harm than good” when it was introduced among the Irish peasantry at the end of the nineteenth century. “I remember the good strong teeth that the old people had in their day. That was when they had yellow meal [mín bhuí] and porridge. They were all solid, strong, and lively, with excellent health. Afterward, when they began with the flour, their teeth started decaying and falling out.” (My translation of Seanchas an Táilliúra (Dublin and Cork: Mercier, 1978), 45. The dental health of Mississippian Native Americans similarly deteriorated once hunting and gathering shifted decisively toward corn agriculture. back
17 My translation of Works and Days, 504-508. back
18 Cf. Wendell Berry : “Most settlers who farmed in America farmed in Europe . The farm population in this country therefore embodies a knowledge and a set of attitudes and interests that have been literally thousands of years in the making. This mentality is, or was, a great resource upon which we might have built a truly indigenous agriculture, fully adequate to the needs and demands of American regions. Ancient as it is, it is destroyed in a generation in every family that is forced off the farm into the city—or in less than a generation, for the farm mentality can survive only in sustained vital contact with the land.” Ibid., 101-102, in “Discipline and Hope,” 86-168. back
19 From p. 159 of Niall Ó Ciosáin, “Dia, Bia, agus Sasanna: An Mistéalach agus Íomh an Gorta,” in Gnéithe den Gorta, ed. Cathal Póirtéir (Baile Átha Cliath [Dublin]: Coiscéim, 1995): 151-163. The translation from Irish is mine. back
20 Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1948), 32. back
21 That this selling of one’s talents to the highest bidder has tarnished even the jewel in Western intellectualism’s crown, science, is apparent to anyone familiar with patterns of research at universities. Academic departments now covet grants to fund their operation, and the richest grants naturally reward programs of study that promise practical solutions to widely publicized problems (automobile pollution, the spread of AIDS) or specific confirmation of popular social theories (the equality of all races in every regard, the identity of biological factors in the behavior of both genders). back
22 On all issues involving the sacrifice of sensible residential construction to car traffic, I would direct the reader to Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream (New York: North Point Press, 2000). Awareness of this folly, however, is about as old as the folly itself. I recently stumbled upon Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Random House, 1961), which commemorates the virtues of the multi-functional neighborhood with irresistible lucidity. back
23 A sales tax, by the way, would ensure that cultivators of plants grown illegally for distribution on the black market would not escape scot-free: they would pay a fixed percentage of their ill-gotten gain to the state every time they themselves made a legal purchase. Such types currently enjoy a tax-free income until and unless the slow arm of the law finally catches up with them. back
24 Op. cit., 136. back
25 The incident is described in Pádraig Ua Cnáimhsí, Idir an Dá Ghaoth (Baile Átha Cliath [Dublin]: Sáirséal, 1997), 151. back
26 Peter Singleton, Return to Chivalry ( Tyler , TX : Arcturus, 2001), 29. back
27 See Howard S. Schwartz, The Revolt of the Primitive ( Piscataway , NJ : Transaction, 2003). back
28 The delightful conservative commentator, Betsy Hart, exemplified this mentality in several of her columns before her regrettable divorce. I recall particularly a paean to her then-husband for earning money at a rate which jeopardized his health, a feat which she viewed as making him a manly provider. back
29 More’s cryptic little book was always taught to me as a proto-Marxian tract, yet the truth is that Utopia’s emphasis on a quasi-urban, universally practiced agriculture is nothing more than a sensible rejection of the gimmick-and-frivolity market’s cultural relativism and moral subversion, as I have argued here. The single point on which More “got it wrong” is that very point which induced my partisan instructors to enrol him in the Party: his apparent condemnation (through Utopian practice) of private ownership. In fact, Marx’s naiveté was probably less than More’s inasmuch as he at least assumed that the proletariat had already been pried loose from the land. What he failed to see (among numerous other things) was that the poor needed back on the land, and needed to own their fields. back
30 Edmund Burke, of course, emphasized the role of community in forming identity and constrained his understanding of freedom within ties of custom, tradition, and circumstance. My point is precisely that individual choices made in the context of one’s duties to immediate dependents requiring specific assistance are the surest measure of one’s freedom. That Burke would approve my disdain of the contemporary “community” of venal interests is further implied by how similarly to “isolationist” (see the next paragraph) the word “nativist” has been stigmatized—a silly verbal concoction full of assumptions that Burke would have deplored. True communities are created by oil no more than by ideology. back
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.