Price, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

by Caleb Stegall on April 18, 2009 · 14 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Economics & Empire,Writers & Poets

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JEFFERSON COUNTY, KANSAS.*  In 1947, two titans of 20th-century economic theory, Ludwig von Mises and Wilhelm Röpke, met in Röpke’s home of Geneva, Switzerland. During the war, the Genevan fathers coped with shortages by providing citizens with small garden allotments outside the city for growing vegtables. These citizen gardens became so popular with the people of Geneva that the practice was continued even after the war and the return to abundance. Röpke was particularly proud of these citizen farmers, and so he took Mises on a tour of the gardens. “A very inefficient way of producing foodstuffs!” Mises noted disapprovingly. “Perhaps so, but a very efficient way of producing human happiness” was Röpke’s rejoinder.

Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future by Bill McKibben is essentially a book-length recapitulation and exploration of the Mises-Röpke exchange. McKibben’s task is first to demonstrate the failure of established economic theory to provide an adequate and sustainable account of human well-being and second to develop an alternative paradigm that offers a more durable way forward. On the former count, Deep Economy must be considered a rousing success. On the latter, more difficult score, it is disappointing. McKibben provides valuable insight and important stories of resistance, but he would have benefited from a more thoroughgoing appreciation of the insights of the communitarian Right.

Deep Economy begins with some simple questions: What does it mean to be rich? Is more necessarily better? Why aren’t we happy? McKibben argues that while our preoccupation with utilitarian economics has produced unprecedented growth and material wealth, it has faltered when it comes to providing human happiness and satisfaction. For example, McKibben points out that the established measure of economic growth—the Gross National Product—incorporates perverse incentives for economic exchange such that the most productive (read “happy”) citizen is “a cancer patient who totals his car on his way to meet with his divorce lawyer.” Obviously, evaluating human welfare requires a more supple set of tools.

Far more alarming to McKibben, however, is that the “American way of life”—easy mobility, hyper-individualism, mass consumerism, and the commodification of all things at the altar of the market—has made our society dangerously unstable. “Peak oil” (the phenomena of global oil demand outpacing declining supplies) and global warming feature prominently in McKibben’s argument. He likewise cites studies and anecdotes describing Americans’ general sense of malaise and unease, the widening gap between the haves and have-nots, our obscenely high rate of incarceration, and so on—all despite the continued growth of GDP. This litany amounts to well-trodden ground, and McKibben ably covers it again.

For anyone paying attention, the suggestion that our current economic and social arrangements are like a rickety house just waiting for the roof to fall in is not a hard sell. It is clear that the era of abundant growth and progress driven by a nearly insatiable appetite for the earth’s accumulated stores of cheap fossil energy is nearing an end. It is clear that our political and economic elites are mostly in denial about what this means for our social order. It is clear, whether one buys McKibben’s global-warming alarmism or not, that our sprawl mania is ecologically unsustainable, causing dangerous depletions of natural resources from top soil to water. It is clear that the financial sector is hopelessly overburdened with a legacy of cheap money (which means high debt) backed solely by the presence of cheap oil. It is clear that policy makers in Washington are intent on continuing to provide centralized subsidies to this stumbling behemoth thereby squelching the possible development of true alternatives. Finally, it is clear that as the billions of consumers in the developing world come online and begin to want and expect what we want and expect, the age-old law of scarcity will reassert itself with a vengeance.

Thus the age of “happy motoring”—as James Howard Kunstler has dubbed it—is all but over. McKibben is justifiably worried that the collapse of the postwar economy may bring down the tattered remnants of the social arrangements (not to mention the ecological foundation on which they were built) that stood for centuries. The totality of these complex arrangements are encapsulated for McKibben in the word “community,” which is the real subject of his book. Much of Deep Economy is taken up with the stories of those who are trying to salvage the wealth of true communities before they completely slip from living memory.

It is at this point that McKibben’s assets as a journalist become most valuable to his argument. His prose is lively and engaging, anecdotal rather than systematic. McKibben tells of his “year of eating locally” during which he attempted to obtain all his food from the valley in which he lives. In the course of this experiment, McKibben details the massive global food industry which produces, packages, and delivers virtually every bite to our lips across an average of 1,500 miles. Trying to eat locally was simply an “artificial attempt to persuade myself that some other view of ‘the economy’ was even remotely plausible, that in the absence of the industrial food system I wouldn’t starve.”

McKibben describes less artificial attempts as well. He introduces the reader to small farm experiments in Vermont and Cuba, both redolent of Röpke’s citizen gardens in Geneva. Burlington is home to the Intervale, a 200-acre stretch in an industrial area that at one time served as the city dump and is now leased in small plots to citizen farmers who share equipment, know-how, and good times. The Intervale provides 8 percent of all the fresh food consumed in Burlington. When Cuba faced global isolation following the collapse of the Soviet Union, its system of food production had to change radically. “What happened,” writes McKibben, “was simple, if unexpected. Cuba learned to stop exporting sugar and instead started raising its own food again, growing it on small private farms and in thousands of pocket-sized urban market gardens.” Moreover, “in so doing, Cubans have created what may be the world’s largest working model of a semisustainable agriculture, one that relies far less than the rest of the world does on oil, on chemicals, on shipping vast quantities of food back and forth.”

The upshot of these experiences demonstrates that “if all you are worried about is the greatest yield per acre, then smaller farms produce more food. … You get more food per acre with small farms; more food per dollar with big ones.” Subservience to the economic prime directive of maximizing every dollar actually diminishes the quality and potential quantity of our food supply—not even mentioning the cultural, communal, and political goods that attend production on small farms. As one Intervale farmer, who also happens to be the chairman of Vermont’s House Agriculture Committee, said, “There’s an incredible resurgence of people in a directionless society suddenly wanting to find their roots. There’s real satisfaction in producing your own food.” Or put more succinctly by one newly minted Cuban farmer: “[Before], I was fat, a functionary. I was a bureaucrat.”

McKibben describes similar stories of plausible alternative economies in a dizzying array of sectors and places around the world: from rabbit farmers in China to a community-owned general store in Wyoming to locally produced radio entertainment to creative mass public transportation in Brazil to peasant farms in Bangladesh. For McKibben, the lesson in all of these stories is that we remain capable, if pushed, of defending and developing what he dubs the durable “economics of neighborliness.”

For all of these virtues, Deep Economy falls short of its more ambitious goal of laying a theoretical framework for thinking about human happiness, community, and well being. To the simple question, “Why aren’t we happy?” McKibben offers no compelling reply to the obvious rejoinder from most Americans: “Speak for yourself, I am quite happy.” Or perhaps more honestly: “I rather enjoy being unhappy in my sprawl, my weekend getaway, my three car garage, and all of the accoutrements of lumpenleisure” (another Kunstlerism). Here Deep Economy would have benefited from the more compelling argument, articulated by communitarians of the Right (from Tocqueville to Robert Nisbet) that hyperutilitarianism makes citizens less free.

As Tocqueville argued, a benevolent yet centralized power will “cover the surface of society with a network of small, complicated rules, minute and uniform” until man’s will “is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided.” By this process, society “is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd” of an “innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives.” This form of total control is “combined more easily than is commonly believed” with “outward forms of freedom” and can even be established under the “sovereignty of the people.”

Absent this insight, McKibben is left with the far weaker argument that hyper-individualism simply makes us unhappy. “We need, in short, a new utilitarianism,” announces McKibben—a utilitarianism to measure human happiness. To that end, he turns to economist Richard Layard who writes, “We now know that what people say about how they feel corresponds closely to the actual levels of activity in different parts of the brain, which can be measured in standard scientific ways.” McKibben concludes that the “idea that there is a state called happiness, and that we can dependably figure out what it feels like and how to measure it, is extremely subversive. It would allow economists to … stop asking ‘What did you buy?’ and to start asking ‘Is your life good?’” To the contrary, claims granting vast new powers to elite experts do not strike me as subversive in any good way. It is at this point that I wish McKibben would have recalled the far more subversive and anarchical wisdom of Wendell Berry (to whom Deep Economy is dedicated) who wrote, “As soon as the generals and the politicos / can predict the motions of your mind, / lose it. Leave it as a sign / to mark the false trail, the way you didn’t go.” Instead, McKibben’s only recourse is to the stale status-quo of social-science data purporting to assign “happiness scores” to various socio-economic groupings.

Again, the question of community is not a question of happy feelings but one of social power, as Robert Nisbet so forcefully argued. This truth is illustrated clearly by a group of villagers McKibben visited in Bangladesh. An international expert was selling genetically enhanced grain, allegedly to resolve vitamin deficiencies in local diets. McKibben notes that rather than object on the more decadent, happiness-oriented, Western grounds that genetically modified food is “icky” and “not organic,” the Bengali wisely understood that the true stakes were much higher. They “instantly realized that the new rice would require fertilizer and pesticide, meaning both illness and debt.” In fact, they recognized rather easily what we Americans seem so slow to grasp—that giving up access and control over their own food supply meant giving up real power over their own lives.

The primary characteristic of the disease McKibben describes so well is only hinted at in Deep Economy, but never adequately named. That characteristic is not too much freedom but rather the loss of the freedom of communities to exercise real social power and authority due to oppressive and totalitarian systems of centralized political and economic control by bureaucrats, experts, and functionaries. To start a recovery project with a “new utilitarianism” of “happiness scores” is to fit the wolves with tailor-made wool. Lord spare us both the blowhards from the Department of Commerce and the busybodies from the Ministry of Happiness!

* This review first appeared in the July 30, 2007 issue of The American Conservative.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar D.W. Sabin April 18, 2009 at 11:42 am

I’d never made the explicit connection between local food production and local control until reading this review. I saw a return of local food production as simply a thing better for health, energy conservation and economic structure. But you are absolutely right…this industrialized food centralization has deprived us of our most critical component, aside from water, to live. Hungry people are compliant people when one has the force projection to control them. Let them eat dirt. The great mobility of cheap oil has actually perverted our mobility so that we are more circumscribed…if more physically mobile than ever.

Local agriculture then becomes a matter of self-determination …Jefferson’s yeoman farmer.

One wonders what an “opening” to the West might do to Cuba.

What is Freedom America?

What, exactly is the “Pursuit of Happiness?”

avatar David Darlington April 18, 2009 at 4:36 pm

Where did the graphic accompanying this article come from? I love it.

avatar Empedocles April 18, 2009 at 7:13 pm

I really wish FPR could get McKibben and Kunstler on board as contributors. It would certainly be nice to have localists who identify themselves as being on the Left (for whatever reason) to try to begin to forge a new political coalition.

avatar Jason Peters April 18, 2009 at 8:35 pm

Well said, Caleb. I won’t even tell you where to go.

Empedocles: I won’t speak for all of the Front Porchers, but I hope the FPR can be a “place” for civil dialogue between left and right–a dialogue that begins by identifying what we agree on. Localism is an obvious starter. I know that this dialogue is something that Wendell Berry is very interested in and has been talking about to Matt Rothschild at The Progressive. McKibben and Kunstler would be welcome in the rocking chairs on either side of me.

avatar Richard Ebeling April 19, 2009 at 5:50 am

The story about Roepke and Mises in Geneva in 1947 is a famous one. And it seems to “zing” Mises’s emphasis on efficiency as opposed to human happiness that Roepke tries to make points with.

But recall, many people in, say, Geneva during the war had their version of what Americans had — “Victory Gardens” — precisely because of the shortages of food due to the war effort in America and trade barriers in wartime Switzerland.

But in “normal” times when war is not absorbing a huge amount of a society’s resources and trade barriers are not blocking people from mutually advantageous exchanges with neighbors in other lands, what we see is that most people prefer to maximize their happiness by buying the least expensive version of a good that has the qualities and features they are interested and willing to pay for regardless of whether the supplier is next door or on the other side of the world.

And while some have mini-gardens in their city flower pots or in the back yard of their home, most people do not.

Digging in the backyard, clearing away the rocks, planting the seeds and tending them from the weather or the animals or insects that might eat what as been planted is not what most people view as “fun.”

That is why we increasingly live in urbanized areas in an increasingly global marketplace, and pay others for the “happiness” of providing us food and flowers.

Richard Ebeling

avatar Bob Cheeks April 19, 2009 at 7:01 am

C.S., excellent review.
Re: a “dialogue” between left and right, I wonder why that has yet to occur?
Could it be that the “left,” predicated on Marxism, exists within a line-of-meaning that extends back through Hegel, and Boehme and is firmly rooted in a modern Gnosticism that Dr. Shiffman has quoted the pope as saying is anti-creational.
Consequently, the “left” exists in a tension that is inherently devoid of the myth, while the “right,” to whatever degree, exists within the old creational/Biblical myth; forever a dichotomy.
There’s no way they can honestly co-exist, one must dominate, it’s human nature.
I do, however, appreciate the honest and sincere desires of Empedocles and others who’d like to see us “all just get along.”

avatar D.W. Sabin April 19, 2009 at 1:54 pm

Ebeling,
The garden plot may not have found a long life after WWII in North America but it did in Germany. Perhaps an extended period of shortages after the war gave it a boost but the small garden plot in left-over corners of land still exists in large cities like Berlin. You can see them off highways, in back lots, tucked wherever odd bits of open land exist. They are little agrarian getaways where people retreat from their urban homes to tend flowers and vegetables next to a shack while admiring their concrete Dwarf Collection. Perhaps it is a German predilection …popular metal decorative plaques from the 1800′s show vaguely medieval agrarian scenes and a title of “Die Gute Alte Zeit” (The good old times).

The same trend waxes and wanes here in this country. The recent hyper globalist, hyper consumer era saw it fall into near oblivion but it is roaring back and many people actually do like to dig in the dirt and work …as a form of leisure….for their own food. Its anybody’s guess how long the trend will last but the emerging awareness of the downside of globalist industrial food leads me to believe it will be more than a flash in the pan this time around. Once again, the public is leading both government and big industry and all across the country, local food production is growing remarkably well and this may actually still the need for the individual to grow their own.

We have yet to see what impact the ongoing dislocation in the financialized economy will do to the urban renaissance that has been growing since the 80′s. Still, you are likely correct that a very large sector of the populace would be happy to remain fingertip consumers. I’m not convinced the desire will be supported by the reality of changing circumstances.

Cheeks,
Your categories exist but are just part of the larger historical categories which to a degree, have almost inverted themselves since the era of the Framers. Left and Right today are caricatures that circumvent both reflection and debate by creating glee clubs for the Cliff-Notes Politics of the day and they almost provide the same services to the Omnivore State as do Show Trials: Putting on a little entertainment and diversion so as to encourage the volk to think they still mean anything. Personally, I’d like to see people “get along” but I’d also like to see some real reasoned disagreement that stretches all concerned. I’d also like to see the self-satisfied righteousness on both sides take a gut shot and go away. Watching Fox News and then tuning in MSNBC is a full immersion in condescension and disdain . This appeal to cheap shot and base emotions is the media’s chief service to the runaway State.

avatar Katherine Dalton April 19, 2009 at 3:32 pm

I spent some time in Belgium two summers ago, and outside of Brussels there are vest pocket farms everywhere–chickens, goats, maybe a cow, garden, vines, raspberries. I think the Belgians simply must enjoy the work.

And this is one of the points Berry makes a lot, and McKibbon makes too, and tightwad Amy Dacyczyn also–that we have to reclaim an understanding of work as a pleasure. Work will always have its chores, of course, but the same can be said of many “pleasures”–most sports, for example. But we still think of marathoning as fun, some of us, while some of us see vegetable gardening as a chore, when it’s only the perspective that makes the game.

Personally I think we can’t repeat too often that any community not getting most of its food from a reasonable distance is inherently fragile and at risk. Alas–millions for homeland security systems, but not one dime for a hundred-mile diet. Unless you count the First Garden.

avatar Anthony April 19, 2009 at 6:09 pm

I’m not sure where to put this, but I like FPR, and one thing that I think would make it much better is summaries at the beginning of articles by the authors. Just an idea …

avatar John Médaille April 19, 2009 at 9:52 pm

Empedocles, I think that there is more “conservatism” on the left these days then on the right. One has to overlook their views on sexuality and marriage, no small matters. But that having been said, “Mother Jones” is more conservative than Mother Palin.

As to Röepke, I find a certain unresolved tension in his work; he could never successfully reconcile his Austrianism with his distributism. The failure is given by the remark quoted in the review. It is NOT a matter of placing a better way of producing food in opposition to a better way of producing happiness. Rather, local production is more efficient in BOTH categories. Distributism has been trapped in a false dichotomy, and has conceded economic “efficiency” to somebody else, indeed everybody else. But it is not true. It is a better way of production on any level you care to measure it. And further, it can be measured. It can be measured in Mondragon and in Emilia-Romagna. Austrianism cannot be measured anywhere because it has never existed. It has never existed for the simple reason that it cannot exist. The “axioms” exist in a fairyland, never in reality. The realists are the distributists.

avatar Anthony April 20, 2009 at 12:27 am

John said: ““Mother Jones” is more conservative than Mother Palin.”

That must be why I find David Corn so congenial … Actually, I had a similar thought just the other day. Is AdBusters or Mother Jones more conservative in the way that term matters to me than the more familiar organs of the right?

avatar Monsanto April 20, 2009 at 2:29 pm

Monsanto says-forget about local crops. I will make the world a safe place. I will rid the world of hunger. Once you all depend on the great Monsanto, who will control all the food, all will be safe and food will be plentiful. The great Monsanto can be trusted to feed the masses, especially after local gardens and farmers are found to be dangerous disease spreading infestations and bird flue hubs. All will be safe, just ask South Africa-Google it or check on WIKI if you don’t believe me.

The Great Monsanto has spoken!

“Farmers in South Africa have suffered millions of dollars in lost income due to the failure of their genetically modified (GMO) corn to produce kernels. The three varieties of plants look lush and healthy from the outside, but when the husks were pulled back there are no kernels. Monsanto’s GMO corn was planted on 82,000 hectares of farmland, an amount that equals over 202,000 acres. The loss is spread over three South African provinces, and 280 of the 1,000 farmers who planted the corn have reported the lack of kernel development.

Monsanto has blamed the failure on under fertilization processes in the laboratory and attempted to make light of the situation by claiming that only 25% of the Monsanto seeded farms are involved in the loss. But Marian Mayet, environmental activist and director of the Africa Centre for Biosecurity in Johannesburg is not buying it. According to her information, some farms have suffered up to an 80% crop failure. She has demanded an urgent government investigation and an immediate ban on all GMO food. She points out that it is biotechnology that is the failure, and a careless mistake would not affect three different varieties of corn at the same time. The varieties failing to produce kernels were designed with a built-in resistance to Monsanto’s weed killers, and were manipulated to increase yields.”

http://www.naturalnews.com/025992.html

stories like these are false propoganda to slander the great Monsanto. No need for a victory garden here. The great Monsanto and little brother Tyson will care for all.

I have spoken!

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