When Odysseus visited Hades, he spoke with many of the greatest fallen Greeks: Achilles, Agamemnon, the prophet Tiresias. He sees many others, and considers seeking out Pirithous and Theseus. “But ere they met my view,” Odysseus says, “The kindred of the dead in thousands came and flocked around me with terrific din.”
Odysseus’s expedition into the realms of permanent darkness bears a striking resemblance to that favorite practice of American conservatives, turning to the Founding Fathers for advice on contemporary affairs. Like Odysseus, we generally consult a few of the great souls—Jefferson, Madison, etc—and return quickly. There were many other statesmen in that generation, and in this essay I would like to call our attention to one of the souls that, like Theseus, is too often neglected.
John Taylor of Caroline was a statesman, soldier, author, and farmer from the state of Virginia and one of the great intellectual advocates for the Jeffersonian agrarian republic. After attending the College of William & Mary, he served in the Continental Army, the Virginia Legislature, and the U.S. Senate. Despite his public successes, he preferred life on his farm, Hazelwood.
Taylor’s first major work was Arator. Published in 1813, it is a collection of essays dealing with the political and practical situation of American agriculture. Taylor laments that America’s farmers are being abused by monied urban interests, who draw into factions to pass laws that enrich the elites at the expense of the commonwealth. He also bemoans the deterioration of America’s farmland. Indeed, the crisis of exhausted soil is a major focus in the work. A little over half of Arator is devoted to detailed advice for farmers on how to maintain the health of their fields. For a work of political commentary, it spends a lot of time on when and how to plant clover and spread manure.
If one insight runs through the entirety of Arator, it is that nature under-girds all human endeavors. A proper understanding of and orientation towards nature is essential to human flourishing. For example, a farmer must understand which plants impoverish and which replenish soil, and he must plant accordingly. What is true for the individual is also true for the nation. In order to truly prosper, a people must respect their land. As Taylor writes “The nation never dies; it is the yoke-fellow of the earth; these associates must thrive or starve together; if the nation pursues a system of lessening the food of the earth, the earth in justice or revenge will starve the nation.”
The land provides the raw materials—soil, water, ore, petroleum—upon which our national economy is ultimately based. If these resources are squandered or destroyed, or if our relationship to them is structured along improper lines, then there will be very real consequences. What then can Taylor tell us about the proper use of natural resources?
Taylor’s analysis of soil health was deeply informed by an ethic of stewardship. That is to say, he understood that the natural world was a gift from providence, temporarily entrusted to him and his countrymen, and destined for future generations. From this understanding it naturally followed that fertility was to be jealously guarded and augmented as far as possible. When he considered that currently sterile fields were the result of contemporary farming practices, he wrote that, “patriotism ought to sicken with the anticipation of the censure which posterity will see written in the face of the country.” Taylor believed that farmers, and all Americans, had an obligation to improve upon the bounty offered by nature, and at the very least not to detract from the ecological systems that they would pass down to future generations.
Taylor’s conception of stewardship was also intimately connected to his views on rootedness and localism. While Taylor did speak in generalities about the importance of the “nation’s” farmland, his wealth of practical advice demanded an interest in the particular. He was open with the fact that his own experience qualified him to best speak on agriculture in Virginia and to a lesser extent the mid-Atlantic states. Taylor emphasized the importance of local knowledge—of soil types, rainfall, and the like—for the application of agricultural solutions. This was the sort of knowledge that could only be gained by extended residence in a place.
Taylor saw that rootedness not only enabled stewardship, rootendess impelled stewardship. A farmer who received his land from his parents and passed it on to his children was far more likely to manage it responsibly than a tenant was. Taylor understood that exploitative techniques offer the highest ratio of yield to effort. Therefore anyone working land he did not own, or land he planned to abandon rather than pass down to descendants, was incentivized to farm irresponsibly. On the other hand, the virtuous yeoman was not only motivated by practicality, he also felt a genuine affection for his corner of the earth, and cared for it out of a love incubated by connection. This is what Wendell Berry would later call the “the local love, local loyalty, and local knowledge that make people truly native to their places and therefore good caretakers of their places.”
Arator provides valuable insight into the perspective of rural Virginians at the turn of the nineteenth century. However, antiquarian insights can only carry us so far. Odysseus did not cross the River Acheron to ask Tiresias about the blind man’s life in Athens. He went down to the Stygian depths to ask for advice about his course home. Tiresias offered practical advice, warning that if Odysseus stole the cattle of Hyperion, he would bring down doom upon himself. Does John Taylor of Caroline offer us any warnings for our day?
America has left its agrarian roots far behind. Cheap, reliable energy has become the foundation of the modern American economy, in much the same way that fertile soil was the foundation of our economy in Taylor’s era. Cheap energy, for the moment, requires cheap fossil fuels. A reliance on fossil fuels is inherently antithetical to the land ethic sketched out in Arator. There is a fixed amount of oil, natural gas, and coal underneath the United States. Our economy’s constant thirst for fossil fuels means that we are tearing through our reserves at a breakneck pace, and will leave little or none for future generations. Our appetite for oil has led us to rely on foreign imports as well. I wonder how Taylor would feel knowing that in 2013 the residents of his beloved Caroline County had staked their continued prosperity on the political stability of the Straits of Hormuz. This is to say nothing of burning fossil fuel’s impact on the environment. Like Odysseus’s crew slaughtering the cattle of Hyperion, we are ignoring prudence to gratify short-term appetites.
In the face of the fossil fuel economy’s obvious shortcomings, renewable energy seems like an obvious solution. Boosting wind, solar, and even nuclear generation capabilities could help ween America off of oil. Sustainable energy sources would embody the land ethic of Arator because, like a well-managed farm, they can be passed on to future generations indefinitely, and do not harm the ecosystems in which they are embedded. Indeed, it is more than a fluke of language that we speak of “wind farms” rather than “wind mines.”
President Obama has attempted to bolster America’s fledgling renewable energy industry. Over the last five years, the federal government has provided extremely favorable loans and other perks to companies that promise to create “green jobs.” It would be tempting to think that Taylor would approve of these public-private partnerships. However, Arator is filled with ominous warnings about the threat factions pose to a republic, and the green energy companies suckling at the federal teat exemplify this danger.
Taylor understood that the business of government inherently involved the reallocation of resources, and that because of this greedy and dishonest men would always flock to the centers of power, hoping to divert the flow of public money to themselves. When factions obtain patronage from the government they harm not only the state, but the nation itself. As Taylor writes: “Whatever strength or wealth a government and its legal factions acquire by law is taken from a nation; and whatever is taken from a nation weakens and impoverishes that interest, which composes the majority.”
These factions were deleterious to the common good not only because they commandeered the public purse, but because their interest allied them with the despotic factions within a state. Taylor warned that the liberty and prosperity of a free people could never be overwhelmed “except by factions legally created at the public expense. The wealth transferred from the nation to such factions, devotes them to the will of the government, by which it is bestowed.”
The solar panel manufacturer Solyndra provides the most infamous example of an aspiring renewable energy business metastisizing into a faction. The business was founded to produce solar panels, a noble endeavor on its own terms. However, private investors were leery of investing in a deeply flawed business plan, and Solyndra’s executives turned to the imperial city in Washington, DC. The company obtained an extremely favorable loan to the tune of 535 million dollars, and proceeded to squander the money and go belly-up.
These facts alone make the story an example of a profligate government misallocating public resources. However, the Solyndra affair also shows how a private interest can entwine itself with the powers of the state. Solyndra’s CEO and major investors made enormous donations to the Obama campaign and the Democratic party, donations that may have been rewarded when Department of Energy officials ignored flaws in Solyndra’s business plan. As Solyndra’s business began to deteriorate, corporate leadership continued to pour resources into a lobbying arm that only grew. That paper-shufflers in Washington DC proliferated while production suffered would come as no surprise to readers familiar with Taylor’s warnings about “a system fostering dealers in money and credit at the expense of makers of bread, meat and cloth.”
The example of Solyndra makes it clear that the liberal rhetoric of public-private partnerships can serve as a fig leaf for faction in all its slimy glory. We see that the federal government set out to apportion wealth in order to achieve a public good, the construction of solar panels. The apportioning of wealth was an instrumental end, the construction of solar panels the ultimate end. However, the avarice of partial interests reversed this. As Solyndra invested in its lobbying shop rather than in its workshop, the construction of solar panels became a mere instrumental end, employed by well-connected executives in order to justify their access to the Department of Energy’s money. This money is, of course, properly the produce of the nation, and its diversion from genuine public ends wounds the nation as a whole.
While factions do inflict short-term damage on the budget, they also deform political structures in more lasting ways, as the corruption that infected the late Roman Republic makes clear. As partial interests become entrenched, they place their own members in office, and restructure the state to enrich their allies. These changes alter the constitution and customs of the nation, and pass down to the next generation a republic less capable of protecting liberty. The promotion of factions damages a nation’s political inheritance, just as surely as the unsustainable consumption of resources damages a nation’s ecological inheritance.
What then is the solution? We do not need minor tweaks to Obama’s green energy campaign. Policies designed by Washington bureaucrats will draw the factions and lobbyists that cling to the underbelly of the government like remoras. Sustainable economic growth must begin in American communities. The continued consumption of a finite supply of oil will, sooner or later, drive down supply and increase price. As costs rise individuals, families, and neighborhoods will prove their resilience and begin to implement solutions specific to their unique circumstances. This transition will be much easier for communities that have maintained some measure of a local economy.
The recent boom in farmer’s markets shows that human scale economic structures can thrive in contemporary America. Farmer’s markets do not thrive because the government supports them; in fact they compete successfully against heavily subsidized agribusiness. Farmer’s markets thrive because many shoppers feel that they have a stake in their community, and a responsibility for its upkeep. Therefore they want to buy high quality products from the kind of local, responsible, and virtuous farmers that Taylor praised in Arator. As this dynamism is turned to America’s energy needs it will empower individuals, families, and communities to meet their own needs.
Odysseus was able to survive his travels and return to Ithaca because he was motivated by a deep love for his home, and because he respected the advice of Tiresias. In the same way, Americans will be able to thrive in the coming decades if we cultivate a sense of love for our homeland and consider the wisdom of earlier generations of Americans.