Kearneysville, WV. At 10:00pm on New Year’s Eve 2008, just as his shift was ending, Patrick McCarron was asked to turn in his badge and keys and to clean out his locker. This was his first official notice that his facilities maintenance job had been terminated. So this father of five young children, went home, celebrated New Years with his family, and on January 2 went to work for himself.

On Labor Day, I sat down with Patrick to ask him about the past eight months. “I knew I was ready,” he told me. “I could take the skills I’ve acquired in thirteen years and apply them on my own.” I asked him how he broke the news to his wife. “I told her this was a new beginning for us, a new chapter.” He’s been working steadily as a handyman ever since.

When his job was terminated, it didn’t come as a complete surprise. Rumors had been circulating for some time, so he made preparations. He began saving as much money as possible; he began doing odd jobs on weekends; and perhaps most importantly, he began to prepare himself mentally for the possibility that a major change was possible. When the news finally came down, Patrick and his family were ready.

While the loss of a steady paycheck was, understandably, the most difficult aspect of this change, he doesn’t miss the 42 mile (each way) commute that cost him one hour and twelve minutes twice each day. Nor does he miss the culture of indifference that characterized many of his former co-workers. “It wasn’t a workshop, it was a hideshop,” he explained, shaking his head. “People attempted to get out of work. They were always quick to defend their rights, but never quick to put out.” Continuing, he noted that “there was a perverse incentive structure: if you worked hard, you got paid. If you shirked, you got paid. That’s exactly the opposite of what I do now because I have to produce.”

Productivity is something Patrick has been forced to think about a lot in the past few months. The success of his new venture is directly related to what he produces. He is struck by the contrast between this reality and the way many of his former co-workers operated and how the denizens of the cubicle can do the same. For too many “economy and livelihood are not predicated on productivity. People can waste time at work on the internet and still get paid.”

One thing he especially appreciates about his new job is the freedom. “I love the flexibility. It allows me to be creative in performing certain tasks. In my other job we were constrained by rules and prescribed procedures.” He notes that this flexibility is most obvious when it comes to tools. “The best thing is I get to use my own tools. I can use the tool that suits me. In my other job, the contractor was responsible to provide virtually all the tools.” He was constantly frustrated by the fact that some of his co-workers didn’t take good care of the tools they were all required to use. He now buys and uses his own tools and appreciates the fact that he is accountable for them. In addition, he is free to organize his own day. “I’m not confined to an eight hour day. I have a strong incentive to maximize my time, to do the best job possible, so I can survive.” But the new-found freedom is not without constraint. “I’m free to choose my work and my price, but now that freedom comes with responsibility. In my other job, I was just a cog in the wheel, and although I worked hard, the incentive was less.”

But with this new freedom, also comes a greater sense of risk. In his old job, “the work was supplied. Now I have to find the work myself. This creates a strong incentive to present myself well so people are willing to have me come into their homes. I have to consider things beyond the work, itself. I avoid slang, use good language, and dress neatly. I keep a clean polo shirt in the van in case I need to meet a customer to discuss a job.”

This new life has, Patrick told me, been harder on his wife than on him. “Every week and every month are different. Some are very good. Some are tight.” This has forced his family to live frugally. “I try to save as much as I can. I avoid credit cards. I’ve taken out no loans. I did have a bit of money squirreled away and if I need a loan, I borrow from myself and pay it back on my own terms.”

I asked Patrick if he saw this less certain situation as a stop-gap measure between permanent jobs or if he hopes he can make it work for the long term. He didn’t hesitate with an answer: “I want to see this extend indefinitely. I love to go to a person’s house, solve their problem, and get paid for it. I hope this can last. I don’t see it as a stop-gap measure.” He continued: “In a sense, the monetary reward is secondary. I want each job I do to be a work of art, even something as mundane as painting a wall.” He leaned forward to make the point: “a satisfied customer is the best reward.”

Of course, Patrick’s transition was possible because he has marketable skills. He works with his hands, owns the tools of his craft, and can meet the needs of people who are willing to pay for his services. Writers as disparate as Matthew Crawford (Shop Class as Soul Craft), Hilare Belloc (The Restoration of Property), and Wendell Berry (The Gift of Good Land) have argued that there is a kind independence that can be achieved through the manual arts and the ownership of one’s land or tools that is not possible when one is part of the so-called information economy. That independence is clearly a bracing sort of tonic, one that Patrick finds exhilarating.

As we were finishing up, the phone rang. It was a customer calling about a small job. Patrick offered to come that very afternoon (on Labor Day) to take care of the problem. The customer decided it wasn’t urgent, but asked that he come later in the week to do the small job but also to begin a larger one. Such is the life of a self-employed handyman. May he prosper.

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Mark T. Mitchell
Mark T. Mitchell teaches political theory at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, VA. He is the author Michael Polanyi: The Art of Knowing and The Politics of Gratitude: Scale, Place, and Community in a Global Age (Potomac Books, 2012). He is co-editor of another book titled, The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry. Currently he is writing a book on private property. In 2008-9, while on sabbatical at Princeton University, he and Jeremy Beer hatched a plan to start a website dedicated to political decentralism, economic localism, and cultural regionalism. A group of like-minded people quickly formed around these ideas, and in March 2009, FPR was launched. Although he was raised in Montana and still occasionally longs for the west, he lives in Virginia with his wife, three sons and one daughter where they are in the process of turning a few acres into a small farm. See books written by Mark Mitchell.


  1. As G. K. Chesterton pointed out, the opposite of employment is not “unemployment,” but independence. But the problem with that is that most people are not prepared for independence and find it frightening; we think of ourselves in terms of holding jobs, that is, being dependent, being a servant for somebody else. Our “business schools” churn out “business administrators,” that is, bureaucrats, not businessmen.

    Patrick was lucky: he has an actual skill, he can actually perform a service for his neighbors. Likely, he had not been educated for obsolescence at an expensive school. But what does a “business administrator” do when there is no business to administer? Can he go to his neighbors and say, “Can I streamline your accounts receivable for you, or rationalize you meal production process?”

  2. A great story, both inspiring and sobering. Thanks for sharing it with us, Mark.

    This new life has, Patrick told me, been harder on his wife than on him.

    This point is one that, I think at least, demands some serious consideration. If any of us want to see some form of localism or agrarianism or decentralism truly move into the mainstream, we must think about the fact that the costs and burdens of moving away from a system of consumption and towards a more humble existence will almost certainly not be felt equally by the breadwinner and the homemaker. Obviously, such a point is particularly difficult for those of us who are even somewhat egalitarian in how we view men and women and the family, but I suspect it would be relevant to even the most traditionalist among us as well. I wish I could say I have some clear answers, but I don’t.

  3. Human survival requires making choices. Now that we have learnt how to commodify Nature we mostly all make our choices in the market place and to make those choices we need money. To best ensure an adequate and continuous supply of money, however, we all need control of productive capital. Not to believe this increases the survival odds against us. To, therefore, persist with a system that limits productive capital to an elite few is perverse!

  4. If we are ever to wean ourselves from the prevailing cult of diminishing expectations resulting from the wonders of wage slavery, it will be through the efforts of Patrick the Handyman, who…..at the fresh moment of victimhood, threw cares to the wind and relied upon himself.

    This was once a nation of small entrepreneurs, both town and country was comprised primarily of freeholders whose stake in society was direct and inter-related with his fellow citizen. Cause and Effect was not some distant memory co-opted by large institutions. The transition from city to country was mutually reinforcing and the citizenry became legendary for a simple habit: Can Do.

    Waiting for change to emerge out of the well-meaning but thoroughly flummoxed mind of government is like waiting for food to spring up out of a shopping center parking lot. Aint gonna happen. No, let me make this clear. It is Not Going To Happen. Government can surely assist but the helping hand should always and only come most forcefully from the citizen.

    Government, in this Republic…. began and should remain subservient to the productive lives of the citizenry. It should assist where needed but largely remain unseen and unheard until times of emergency. The fact that we do not seem to think this now is sure evidence that Benjamin Franklin was right when he doubted we could keep our Republic. That this transition to a kind of Have a Nice Day Statism has happened as a result of the best of intentions is little recompense for the sorry fact that the people have staged a revolution and beat its own ass.

    Hoooray for Handymen, we are going to need them.

  5. D.W., dude, I got tears in my eyes; ‘republic,’ ‘statism,’ what brilliant observations!
    Now about Southern secession!

  6. Cheeks,
    Though thoughts of the secesh mode might be entertaining and are always good for tweaking the Statist into a righteous fit, the reality of it would likely be less than a good time and to begin with, any secesh movement would be fruitless without a knowledgeable citizenry to assume the heavy lifting required of a properly functioning republic…in other words, mere separation will achieve nothing because one will likely simply retain the statist mindset. We need a bottoms up movement of self-education that will use the vehicle we already possess to reorder the nation in the form intended….one in which government assumes its proper role in the pantheon of the Separation of Powers…a counterweight to intemperate private actions coupled with the principle player in Defense but never in the top-down, technocratic and growing form that exists today.

    It is no accident that citizenship is in eclipse concurrent with entrepreneurialism…both being replaced by a fatalist resignation that only large institutions can provide the efficiency required as well as the counterweight to a “dangerous and hostile world teaming with bad guys” . That this same centralized and rigged game of the technocrat Statist and their Corporate Retainers is a central and fundamental actor within the dangerous world seems lost on the prognosticators. Adding a secesh movement to the current sideshow would likely result in the standard solutions of the Statist Technocrat and his Military Vendors. I suppose we are Retarded Cartesians….always satisfied with dissecting merely the symptoms rather than the working further to uncover the underlying causes of dysfunction that grips us like a glove. A Secesh movement in this atmosphere springs from a fundamental weakness. Personally, I would prefer a stronger States Rights push that does not manufacture antagonists but seeks to work within the system to recreate the States Rights Federalism of the Framers and does so with the benefit of the accumulating experience of the intervening years.

  7. D.W.
    That was very good and I have to concur with much if not most of what you’ve said. However, I am saddened to report that you may not be allowed to discuss such things here because of their relationship to the politically incorrect words ‘slavery’ and ‘racism’.
    Also, let me know how that “States Rights push” works out for you (and those words may be ‘forbotten’ here as well). I don’t think you’re going to get any succor from either the Commie-Dems or the Stooopid-Repubs…it’s a functional third party, which brings us back to a critique of this: “…would be fruitless without a knowledgeable citizenry to assume the heavy lifting required of a properly functioning republic.”
    Isn’t a “knowledgeable citizenry..” required for your patriotic efforts at restoration via a States Rights “push?”
    Are you going to comment on the Sales thing? You should!

    But, I wouldn’t mind about five secesh movements at once…kinda puts and end to the empire thing and increases the chances for a recovery of lost liberties!

  8. Cheeks,
    Though I generally believe that any stupidity should be hauled out into the air like a dead skunk for all to admire, I am in complete support of any private journalistic endeavor deciding to allow or can anything it sees fit, whenever or however it sees fit. This is an opinion journal and not a digest of news reportage. Actually, I have been somewhat alarmed that they didn’t can me and my yammering yawps some time ago just on general principle and in defense of grammar.

    I can’t really comment on the Sales issue anymore than I did in the original thread…quite intemperately I might add…because after skimming it, I came to a conclusion not unlike the conclusion that was made. There seemed to be some embedded rhetoric making a sideways attempt at ham-handed code in it and it started to look like a salute to DW Griffith and so I passed on a detailed assessment.

    An editorial decision was made and that, as they say, is that….skippy.

    Five Secesh movements at once….boy, now that would be a scene of sanguinary mirth indeed. There is almost enough farce in it to take seriously. Farce being one of the more potent political expressions. 63,000 dead multiplied to accommodate population growth since that time and one should surmise that any Mulligan of the earlier farrago be avoided if possible.

  9. And just to make sure we manage to stay on task, seems this essay is on the small but miraculous victory of a Handyman . Seems public opinion needs a handyman sometimes, somebody to use a wrench on it to make sure the pipes don’t spring a leak. So the subject at hand is how do we create more Handymen and fewer “Service Managerial elite”.

  10. Plumbing is REAL hard. I’m probably the last guy who got out of graduate school without owing anybody any money. I went to an M.A. program with two daughters, and had three for a Ph.D. My wife was home for every one of them, or I was, depending on what we had to do to put food on the table. I’ve told every class that I have taught for almost 48 years that they should learn a trade as well as learning the liberal arts. Not only is there no incompatibility, there is a synergy that gives one the ability to be self governing in a way that no “intellectual” can be.

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