Wendell Berry and the Great Economy

I confess that until now I have never read anything by Wendell Berry. In fact, I deliberately avoided reading anything by him, or indeed by any agrarian writer. There was a strategic reason for this. The bulk of my work is devoted to explicating distributism in purely economic terms, and distributism is often accused of being “merely” an agrarian system and therefore an exercise in nostalgia and romanticism. Hence, I have been at great pains to show distributism’s scientific basis and its industrial examples, which are many, and avoiding any imputation of being (oh horror!) a “mere agrarian.” But now, with two books under my belt, and hardly an agrarian to haunt the bibliographies, I feel I can safely add these authors to my reading list. And so, when the University of Dallas chose Berry’s latest collection of essays, What Matters?: Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth, as the book for its Faculty Book Discussion, it came as a providential opportunity.

The aversion that so many modern economists have to agrarianism is somewhat strange, given that the generally acknowledged founder of modern economics, Adam Smith, considered himself to be an agrarian. Book IV of The Wealth of Nations discusses “Systems of Political Œconomy,” which he divides into mercantilist and agricultural systems. In chapter IX of that book, he renders his verdict:

[The Agricultural] system…is, perhaps, the nearest approximation to the truth that has yet been published upon the subject of political œconomy, and is upon that account well worth the consideration of every man who wishes to examine with attention the principles of that very important science.

Concerning the mercantilists (who are the original globalists), Smith says,

[B]y encouraging manufacturing and foreign trade more than agriculture, [he] turns a certain portion of the capital of the society from supporting a more advantageous to supporting a less advantageous species of industry.

For Smith, the wealth of a nation is firmly rooted in its fields and farms, and manufacturing justifies itself by its ability to lower the costs to the farmer of the things that cannot be produced on the farm, or can be produced only with great difficulty. There is a clear priority given by Smith to the farm, and it is just this priority that Wendell Berry seeks to revive.

What Matters is a collection of essays written over a long period of time, and hence not a systematic presentation of some economic “system”; there is not a single chart or table in the whole work. Rather it is an extended critique of the failures of modern economists to comprehend the true nature of their science. This is a rich and pithy critique, one that defies easy summation by a reviewer. For example, Berry has the best one-line summary of the cause of the current crisis, namely the willingness of the banks to sell “a bet on a debt as an asset.” That summarizes several books on the subject.

Berry points out that current economics have severed all connection with the real economy, which he calls “The Great Economy.” More of that economy in a moment, but what really occupies most of our “economists,” he points out, is not really economics at all, but chrematistics. Economics (from oikonomia, “household management”) is about the material provisioning of society; chrematistics is about individuals amassing abstract wealth in the form of money, and has no necessary connection with the material well-being of society, that is, with the production of real goods and services. And although chrematistics is poorly connected to real world oikonomia, its predominance over the real economy can bring that economy down, as it has now and many times in the past. And as long as we practice chrematistics rather than real oikonomia, it will continue to bring the economy down until there is no economy left to raise up. “Our economy,” Berry notes, “has become an anti-economy, a financial system without a sound economic basis and without economic virtues.”

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