What our Hands Have Wrought

by Mark T. Mitchell on March 2, 2009 · 46 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Economics & Empire

m

RINGOES, NJ. In the fall of 2008, Americans were confronted with frightening news. The financial world was, the experts warned, teetering on the brink of disaster. Politicians from both parties grimly intoned that what was at stake was “our American way of life” and without massive intervention the country, and perhaps the world, was heading toward an “economic apocalypse.” These events seem to have caught many off guard. Despite the regular warnings from cranks, dooms-dayers, and other pessimists, few Americans, if actions are a reliable measure, actually believed that they would be staring into the abyss of economic disaster. The price-tag necessary to steer the economy away from the precipice is breath-taking, and even with such an infusion of money into the markets, there is no guarantee that our wild careen will be abated. In short, we could find ourselves spending an incredible amount of money and still lose the game. We should be skeptical when powerful people ask for more power. We should be doubly skeptical when they do so using fear as a motivation. When the putative choice is massive government intervention and spending on a scale never before contemplated or world-wide disaster, we do well to ask how we got into such a conundrum.

We can begin with a question that plenty of people have recently raised: are some companies too big to fail? Or more precisely, are some corporations so big that their failure would devastate the economy? Billions of dollars have been spent in order to shore up some corporations and entire sectors (banks and automobiles, for example), and the reasoning is that these are so crucial to the economy that public money should be spent to resuscitate them. But this simply raises more questions: Is it a fundamental problem when a corporation or sector becomes so big that its failure is believed to threaten the entire national economy? Could it be that scale and economic security are related? Can institutions become so large that their potential harm outweighs their actual (or occasional) good?

In order to answer these questions, it is instructive to turn to Hilaire Belloc’s neglected classic, The Servile State, first published in 1913. According to Belloc, capitalism is fundamentally unstable and is therefore a transitory condition. It is important, though, to pay careful attention to his definition of capitalism. “A society in which the ownership of the means of production is confined to a body of free citizens not large enough to make up properly a general character of that society, while the rest are dispossessed of the means of production and therefore proletarian, we call capitalist.” In Belloc’s mind, there are only two resolutions to the instability of capitalism. The first is socialism and the second is what he calls “the distributist state” or “the proprietary state” in which private property, specifically the means of production, are broadly distributed through out the populace.

Why is capitalism unstable? Capitalism, as defined by Belloc tends toward centralization of economic power, but when economic power is centralized, it requires a strong political structure to manage it. Herein we see the connection between economics and politics: centralized economic power goes hand-in-hand with centralized political power. Belloc’s friend and fellow distributist, G.K. Chesterton, argued that capitalism had come to an end, and the evidence was that the capitalists appealed “for the intervention of Government like Socialists.” In light of our current situation, it is difficult not to see Chesterton’s point.

F.A. Hayek argues that consolidation of economic power in the form of monopolies will invariably lead toward socialism. “A state which allows such enormous aggregations of power to grow up cannot afford to let this power rest entirely in private control.” The blame, according to Hayek, does not fall exclusively upon the capitalist class. Instead, “the fatal development was that they have succeeded in enlisting the support of an ever increasing number of other groups and, with their help, in obtaining the support of the state.”

Economic historian Karl Polanyi notes that “laissez-faire itself was enforced by the state.” The formation of a market system required a significant government involvement. “The road to the free market was opened and kept open by an enormous increase in continuous, centrally organized and controlled interventionism.” This, of course, seems counter-intuitive, but Polanyi’s point is that the market system that grew up in the 19th century was not a spontaneous product. It was planned. “Thus even those who wished most ardently to free the state from all unnecessary duties, and those whose philosophy demanded the restriction of state activities, could not but entrust the self-same state with the new powers, organs, and instruments required for the establishment of laissez-faire.” Of course, strictly speaking, interventionism is the opposite of laissez-faire, and if the ideal of laissez-faire could ever be established, interventionism would not be necessary. But the establishment of a laissez-faire system has proven elusive. According to Polanyi, it is a utopian dream the pursuit of which justifies temporary intervention. “For as long as that system is not established, economic liberals must and will unhesitatingly call for the intervention of the state order to establish it, and once established, in order to maintain it.” It seems clear, then, that economic centralization and political centralization feed off one another. Far from being antagonistic, they are natural allies. The massive regulatory state emerged with the explosive growth of market capitalism.

This line of argument throws the current debate about the stimulus package—and President Obama’s policies more generally—into a new light. When the Republicans object that this sort of government intervention in the economy is destructive of liberty, they are right. But thus far they have failed to see how by embracing the corporatization of the economy they have aided in the growth of government and, indeed, made it necessary. In short, Republicans continue to voice some principled support of small government (this after eight years of Bush expansion!) but their complaints come across as vacuous and often as little more than the plaintive whimpers of a group struggling desperately to be relevant. They are holding to half a principle, and that just won’t hold water.

Here we can see the curious state of affairs in our waning republic: Democrats tend to be suspicious of big business but they trust big government to rein in abuses; Republicans express suspicion of big government but no fear of economic centralization. Both are half right but half blind. Here is a principle that we would do well to grasp: concentrations of power in any form are a threat to liberty. It may be too late for this generation to see this vital truth, or if seeing, to do anything about it. But nothing is inevitable, and there are hopeful signs that people are beginning to think seriously about the importance of localism, human scale, limits, and stewardship, the very things woefully lacking in the current spending orgy. While a return to these ideals is still only in its infancy, change is afoot. This represents a glimmer of sanity in a world succumbing to the apparent security promised by centralization.

Nevertheless, we are facing the specter of a strange new phase in our nation’s history. Through massive spending we are embarking on an age of concentration, an age where economic and political power are not only allied but centralized, an age where the two will become increasingly intertwined and difficult to distinguish. The long courtship is over. The marriage has been consummated. The Wall-Street bailout and stimulus package are the grotesque progeny of this unholy union.

{ 46 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Grayson Haye March 3, 2009 at 12:53 am

I love the disdain you characterize TARP with. One of the best articles on the bailout I’ve read. Great job, keep it up!

avatar Nathan P. Origer March 3, 2009 at 12:56 am

Thank you, Mr. Mitchell, for introducing the good Mr. Belloc in the incipient stages of a Web-log the emergence of which surely portends my failing out of grad school. Doubtless, few men in the history of mankind have been so prescient, and yet so ignored, as the Distributists.

“Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists.”
-G.K. Chesterton, The Uses of Diversity

avatar Richard March 3, 2009 at 1:43 am

“Democrats tend to be suspicious of big business but they trust big government to rein in abuses; Republicans express suspicion of big government but no fear of economic centralization. Both are half right but half blind.”

I would agree with this wonderfully stated bit, but what is the alternative to a sort of Ayn Rand kind of capitalism? My moral inclination is towards socialism, but capitalism seems to “work” better. But how is a minimal non-involved government going to guarantee that the economy is not only growing but good? If not the government, then who?

avatar Nathan P. Origer March 3, 2009 at 6:09 am

Richard,

I think that Mitchell’s point — or at least I hope that his point — is that we need to revisit the economic vision of Leo XIII and the Distributists. It’s very easy to fall into the capitalism-socialism dichotomy because the ideals of Distributism seem to be absurd, beautiful but impossible, or somewhere in between — and maybe to some extent that’s true. But Belloc, et al. certainly provide a good blueprint. WIlhelm Röpke, dubbed by one Web-logger as the “Austrian Distributivist,” may be the economist to whom we should turn, one who embraced the market (just as, understood in a certain way, I think, the Distributists did), but recognized the importance of the small and particular (He was, I think, Kirk’s favorite economist. ) and of subordinating supply and demand and the other hard rules of economics to culture and community. E.F. Schumacher, too.

avatar Dylan Hales March 3, 2009 at 6:35 am

I’ve been accused of being hopelessly pessimistic before, but on the subject of our polarized political configurations I am quickly being converted into an (naive?) optimist.

The lessons of the Bush years were hard for us all, but I think they have exposed the man behind the curtain to many American liberals. Ten years ago it was unfathomable to find lefties who regarded big government as a danger to be guarded against as fiercely as one would guard against big business. Thanks to W. this is no longer the case.

On the right, the cult of militarism is in decline, and the explosion of libertarianism amongst the young can only be seen as a welcome sign. The New Right is not the Old New Right (thankfully) and in some respects owes much to the New Left. As a self professed Left Conservative I see this as another welcome development to be sure.

avatar Brett Beemer March 3, 2009 at 8:19 am

The problem that I see with any economic model is that there will be intervention by the state at some point. Even if a true “laissez-faire” economy was established human nature would grab control of some individuals in society and monopolies would eventually be formed and the government would then move from “laissez-faire” to some sort of governmental controls. Once you have a few controls we will end where we are today. If the monopolies are left unchecked eventually they will control the government because they will control livelyhood of those who work in society.

If the economy and the government cannot be truly seperated then it is really a teeter-totter of being balanced correctly. When any force starts to get to much control the balnce is shifted one way and momentum starts to go in that direction. When people realize the shift they tend to over react and shift the balance the other direction. Eventually one side or the other hits the ground and people fall off.

The only hope for balance is when people who are independent of the economy run the government for the benefit of society. That balance while achieved for short periods will never last and with the flow of information and money in todays society to be light speed it will not last for long.

avatar Roberto March 3, 2009 at 8:49 am

I think that Mitchell’s point — or at least I hope that his point — is that we need to revisit the economic vision of Leo XIII and the Distributists. It’s very easy to fall into the capitalism-socialism dichotomy because the ideals of Distributism seem to be absurd, beautiful but impossible, or somewhere in between — and maybe to some extent that’s true.

One of my (many) problems with First Things was their disdain for what they labeled “third way” approaches to the economy or to war and peace issues. For them, the choice was either collectivism, which they of course rejected, or some variant on laissez-faire.

Having insisted that there was no “third way” they now face increasingly collective measures which they are powerless to prevent.

avatar Russell Arben Fox March 3, 2009 at 9:07 am

Nathan, one comment:

Wilhelm Röpke…may be the economist to whom we should turn, one who embraced the market (just as, understood in a certain way, I think, the Distributists did), but recognized the importance of the small and particular (He was, I think, Kirk’s favorite economist. ) and of subordinating supply and demand and the other hard rules of economics to culture and community.

The reason I consider myself some variety of Christian socialist/social democrat/”left” conservative is to be found right in your final lines: “subordinating supply and demand and the other hard rules of economics to culture and community.” We all know the market “works”; human beings are inventive and inquisitive and, in ways both good and bad, always at least partly self-interested; hence, giving them the economic and social space to invent and inquire and compete is going to produce lots of goods that otherwise would never emerge. But that process is, as everyone also knows, destructive–and what it destroys is, too often, cultural memory and resources and community ties and allegiances. So if we are going to depend upon them to keep the “hard rules” of the market under control, what is going to keep them strong? Not the state–at least, not directly. But Röpke himself explicitly acknowledged that certain kinds of compulsory state programs and institutions were going to be necessary to keep the, shall we say, “infrastructure” of families and communities. Call this Christian Democracy, call it a populist/progressive compromise, but one way or another, until and unless peak oil wipes out the economic growth of the past two hundred years and we return to a world wherein the often-insurmountable obstacles to travel, trade and communication kept the overwheming majority of people in the villages they were born into, I think it’s the best we can do. (And that best isn’t necessarily too bad: the record of the smaller, social democratic states of Europe is, I think, at least as good, if not better, than even the best of American states at preserving the collective capacity of families and communities to discipline the market–and certainly that’s been the case ever since the rise of finance capitalism and the seductive lure of the stock market took hold of our communities during the 1970s and 80s.)

avatar Mark Mitchell March 3, 2009 at 9:22 am

Nathan has me pegged. We would do well to listen to the wisdom of Ropke, Schumacher, and Belloc. Unfortunately, Keynes is the man of this dismal hour.

avatar Joshua Knox March 3, 2009 at 11:07 am

Hello,

First off, let me say I am delighted to see the creation of this site and the pooling of so many of my favorite blog-authors. I look forward Front Porch Republic’s success.

Now, to the matter at hand. This article crystallized for me another source of my anger at the Republican Party (of which I am technically still a member). Despite the fact that they theoretically endorse “small government,” this principle is by no means across the board and only seems to manifest itself when their direct financial interest is threatened.

Here’s what I mean: during the recent Bush Administration, massive increases in government spending were accepted by the GOP power base, if not outright cheered. Likewise the increases in the presumed power of government (with respect to issues like detention and the rest). Why? Well, at first I assumed it was because a Republican was doing it. But that’s not it at all. It’s because they weren’t being asked to pay for it. In fact, the inflationary boom benefited them quite a bit, and the persons being detained were certainly not of their group, so that wasn’t a concern either.

But now that government programs seem to have price tags that would directly and negatively impact them suddenly it’s “Tea Party” time! I hate to say this, but this really reinforces the impression that the GOP’s top priority is protecting their own wealth and power, often at the expense of the commonwealth.

As I hinted above, this hardly throws me in with the Democrats, whose general aims I find equally unacceptable. In the meantime, I shall have to start reading Ropke, I suppose!

avatar Patrick Deneen March 3, 2009 at 12:57 pm

A quick correction to Nathan’s otherwise fine point above: Roepke lived much of his life in Switzerland, not Austria. Perhaps this proves that where one comes from can have an enormous influence on one’s subsequent thought: eschewing the libertarianism of the “Austrian School,” Roepke instead embraced the localism that was part of his lived experience as a citizen of Switzerland (and, just as importantly, his canton). That Austria was an empire while Switzerland a confederacy is perhaps not irrelevant. It could even be observed that the Swiss and the Austrian schools have much in common, with one central distinction: Roepke could agree with the Austrian libertarians such as Hayek that humans are not endowed with wisdom enough to know exactly how to plan society; but, he would disagree with the Austrians that we lack as well the knowledge of what ought to be our limits.

For more on Roepke, see Russell Kirk’s thoughts here: http://www.heritage.org/research/politicalphilosophy/hl198.cfm

avatar Russell Arben Fox March 3, 2009 at 1:48 pm

Patrick,

Roepke could agree with the Austrian libertarians such as Hayek that humans are not endowed with wisdom enough to know exactly how to plan society; but, he would disagree with the Austrians that we lack as well the knowledge of what ought to be our limits.

…Which would seem to suggest that the primary task of anyone who wishes to bring elements of distributism/localism/Christian democracy into our present environment is to ask: what acts of socio-economic policy or action represent a “planning” of society, and which are applications of a practical knowledge which is the evidence of lived experience? I’m not sure the distinctions are always clear…

avatar Peter Beaulieu March 3, 2009 at 2:00 pm

In the parlance of the Church’s “social teaching” re the common good, the trick is to marry solidarity (e.g., the economy of the nation) with subsidiarity (e.g., distributism), without compromising either. The riddle of the hour, is not only how to enable, construct or restore the economy of our nation, but in addition, how to do this in a new context that is in fact global — globally projected and globally vulnerable. In this way of thinking, entire nations have become “local.” Already four decades ago, the OPEC Oil Crisis triggered long lines at the pump in our part of the world (our neighborhood), but a much more serious and fatal food crisis unfolded in India (dependence pricey petroleum based fertilizers). Do we in the West remember the 1970s event in this way? This global and more convoluted perspective is not an argument for any current boondoggle in Washington (whose primary function is to maintain the symbolic illusion of government competence), but rather to notice that the now global picture has outgrown the traditional picture frame on both margins, left and the right.

avatar Nathan P. Origer March 3, 2009 at 5:23 pm

Prof. Deneen:

A quick correction to Nathan’s otherwise fine point above: Roepke lived much of his life in Switzerland, not Austria. Perhaps this proves that where one comes from can have an enormous influence on one’s subsequent thought: eschewing the libertarianism of the “Austrian School,” Roepke instead embraced the localism that was part of his lived experience as a citizen of Switzerland (and, just as importantly, his canton).

A note in my defense: I do know that Röpke was Swiss; I was using “Austrian”, quoting the Western Confucian, w/r/t Austrian economics: the WC has suggested, as I tried to note, that Röpke, in a way, bridges the gap between the Distributists and the Austrians. I wasn’t aware of the “Swiss school”, but your brief elucidation has been enlightening.

***

Last May, when I was home in Indiana for a few weeks, I spoke with my former employer, the owner of one of my town’s two grocery stores. We, nationally, were still suffering the pains of high gas prices, and I’ll never forget what Ray said to me.

“I hate to say it, but these gas prices, they’re bad for the economy, but they’re good for Ray’s.”

Precious few were isolated from the effects of that frustrating portent of Peak Oil, just as few of us are unaffected by the greater recession at hand, but it was a bit mind-blowing, and rather reassuring, to realize that the local business, as a matter of necessity, was able to endure the impact more easily than the national — When we can’t afford to support the big because circumstances outside of our control make it difficult, our communities benefit unexpectedly. I’m not entirely sure what, but I think an important lesson is to be found here.

avatar Nathan P. Origer March 3, 2009 at 5:34 pm

Prof. Fox:

So if we are going to depend upon them to keep the “hard rules” of the market under control, what is going to keep them strong? Not the state–at least, not directly. But Röpke himself explicitly acknowledged that certain kinds of compulsory state programs and institutions were going to be necessary to keep the, shall we say, “infrastructure” of families and communities.

It’s important, I think, to remember that Belloc, too, left room for the State to play a role in keeping the market in control, specifically through his support of the differential tax to limit the size of any outfit.

Though he’s not come into this discussion yet, Henry George, I think, offers something important to contemplate with his land-value tax, separating labor-added value of property from wealth an owner can accrue because of market conditions — specifically, say, the popularity of where he owns his property — out of his control. Stripping from property, a foundation of a free and stable society now debased, abused, commoditized, and hoarded, this source of unearned wealth, we may help to facilitate these sorts of Bellocian, Röpkean interventions into the market in ways that undermine neither political nor economic liberty, properly understood.

avatar Cody March 3, 2009 at 7:13 pm

Please excuse me if I appear a bit daft, but how does one go about subordinating the law of supply and demand and other hard rules of economics to that of culture and community?

avatar Cody March 3, 2009 at 7:21 pm

Okay. It seems my first question has been asked and answered.

One reason why I am skeptical of the distributist model is that it has a penchant for attracting those with “good” and “novel” ideas for keeping the destructive forces of the market at bay, and as such, it suffers from the same creeping tyranny of liberalism.

For the sake of the community/culture, we must do this, that, and this. Well, what are the limits?

avatar N. P. West March 3, 2009 at 7:33 pm

It is refreshing to see a conservative website that does not parrot the classical liberal Manchester economic theories that the mainstream Right embraces. Kudos to Front Porch Republic for endorsing Schumacher, Belloc, and Roepke!

avatar Dylan Hales March 3, 2009 at 8:50 pm

Nathan,

George is another figure that transcends the localist/Austrian divide. Frank Chodorov and Albert Jay Nock were single-taxers and libertarians. Even ol’ Bill Buckley himself was sympathetic to Mr. George.

A worthwhile exercise for folks these days would be to look at certain movements and causes like the Georgists and the Populists and try and place them on a political spectrum. Once it becomes evident that this is nearly impossible, a serious re-evaluation of what bigness does to our political culture can begin.

Dylan

avatar Philip Kibbey March 4, 2009 at 12:46 pm

Cody,

I’ll attempt to answer your concern. It is true that once the government enters the market there is an opportunity for ambitious politicians to start controlling it to their own desires and wants. I think we can all agree that there is a clear danger there. But at the same time, we must ensure that we elect politicians who have the “conservative disposition” of restraint, humility, and prudence. Once we can begin to get better at electing responsible people to office does this idea of a thoughtfully restrained free market come into play. I’ve always felt that conservatism is the crucial middle ground. The false dichotomy we are presented – Laissez fair or socialism – allows the perfect opportunity for a third voice to come in a bridge the gap.

There is no exact science to how to approach the direction that Ropke, Belloc, George, and Mr. Mitchell advocate. It is an art. A balancing act per se, that can only be correctly achieved through the necessary technical knowledge and practical knowledge (as Oakeshott puts it) and, a conservative disposition. We seem to be on short supply on politicians with a prudent mind, mainly because we are stuck with ideologues who simply follow their own dogmatic formulas for governing.

avatar Nathan P. Origer March 4, 2009 at 8:47 pm

Cody,

To expand, briefly, on Mr. Kibbey’s response, I’ll note that what is equally important is where — at what level — the government intervention occurs. That is to say, to the greatest degree possible and practical, the intervention must occur locally; then regionally. Only then, when that fails, nationally — call it Federalism, or subsidiarity. First, because it’s much easier, at least in theory, to remove corruptive forces when they are within a stone’s throw, as it were, and are accountable just to you and your community, rather than to an entire region or nation. Second, because though the concerns expressed in Mark’s post and the following comments apply everywhere equally, they don’t always apply in the same manner in all places — a valid defense of Federalism even for those who have no interest in the economic system(s) discussed here.

I hope that I’ve helped.

avatar Philip Kibbey March 4, 2009 at 11:28 pm

Mr. Origer, I definitely agree with the points you make. It is imperative that we break down the rapid centralization of industry, economy, and government because it one of the ways to regain freedom. Your post jives well with the theme of the opening topics at FPR – should we return to localism? Or at least, should be decentralize government back to the states and then to the localities?

I don’t want to veer off topic too much, but I just wanted to clarify the point I made above. To my understanding and belief, conservatism is pro-government. Burke outlines this in “Reflections” but I feel it was ignored more and more as conservatism matured (As an aside, I always loved the beauty and complexity of Burke’s argument that hereditary monarchy preserves liberty in England). But where conservatism differentiates itself from liberalism, socialism, neo-conservatism is that it is for restrained government. In all aspects of life, man’s state of nature must be limited by something, because left unrestrained, man will ruin himself – Think Larison’s post in this blog “Freedom Among Themselves.” When it comes to societies, man must be controlled as well. Conservatives hope that traditions, religion, and culture can do most of the restraining in order to leave ambitious politicians out the equation. But there are limits to tradition like everything else, so we are stuck with government to limit our destructive state of nature.

When it comes to economics, and especially advanced economics, we don’t have a lot of traditions or cultural values and norms that advocate restraining ourselves. Since WWII especially, restraint and economic behavior have never really been combined. So in economics, more than anything else, we have to rely on government. It is unfortunate but necessary. It is important that we teach others to re-think our economic behaviors so that we don’t have to rely on government so much. But a shift in societal thinking takes time. Free market economics does not usually have the patience for this type of shift in societal thinking. If we follow the decentralized approach Mr. Origer explained and combine it with the ideas of Mr. Mitchell, we can still have a prosperous, yet stable economic society. But in the end, conservatives have to dip our toes into the government having some say in the economy, and trust that we can elect prudent leaders to carry out the task. It is a tricky approach for sure, but one that I have faith will work.

avatar Brett Beemer March 5, 2009 at 1:02 pm

I know that I will find that most of you disagree with what I am going to say but I will say it anyways. I think that you are stuck a century behind our times. Supply and Demand is not a national question anymore it is an international question. Having been the CFO of many different multi-national companies we are always looking to reduce costs and take many different factors into account.

If the USA limits itself from the world marketplace to become a distributionist society both the US and the world will suffer with higher prices and a lower level means of living. It would be absurd to assume that most of the world would change their models to follow an economic model with Christian leanings and concepts. It is also not reasonable that people with money and power will be so willing to give up that money and power so quickly.

If a distributionist model was about to be implemented here many wealthy people would take their money and move it to other places overseas. A hundred years ago that would be difficult but with today’s technology I can place orders on almost any stock market around the world and do to the WTF I can own land and the means of production in almost any country.

When talking about economic theory one should no longer look at just the national economic theory but the international theory. When AIG looked as if it was going under I had more people from overseas concerned about their money being lost than I did from people in the USA. Very few economies and no large economy is completely separated from the world and as such when one tries to redistribute wealth in a society or even subjugate society to human rights you are going to have a drain on that society.

Finally you still have the issue of how to get the right people to run the economy correctly in the long run. Unfortunately we as individuals are all influenced by what is happening around us and are sometimes willing to subjugate what is best for society for own benefits. If this were not true how could we explain Stalin and Hitler.

I personally love the concept of true communism which is that each produces what he can and each consumes what he needs. But I also know that while it works in a theoretical utopia it will never work when I put real individuals into the setting. It would not even work in a small group where all benefit by its application because even with 10 people there will be people who will take more than they need and not give 100% to production.

avatar Mark Shiffman March 6, 2009 at 1:22 pm

Brett: You seem to have distributism confused with communism. Distributism favors small properties over large. Communism favors large scale control over the economy.

One of the things you will, I suspect, find most contributors here agreeing about is that our addiction to low prices and a “high standard of living” are part of the problem, and so would not be dismayed to see higher prices and less abundance of stuff in people’s hands.

Brett and Cody both seem to have overlooked the fact that “supply and demand” is driven by demand, and demand is in many respects a product of culture. A culture of consumerism held to fever pitch by advertising (the job of which is largely to create demand) is different from a culture that valorizes self-sufficiency and thrift. Laws privileging publicly traded companies who are compelled to constantly reduce costs are not the only possible laws.

America can without question (looking at the problem simply in terms of maintaining a decent living) largely do without everything Brett is worried about losing. It is, as he implies, the corporations who can’t.

avatar Brett Beemer March 6, 2009 at 2:03 pm

Mark,

Actually I did not confuse communism with distributism I was making the point that neither is possible because of the world we live in and human nature as a rule (though I personally prefer true communism to distributism). If the US were to impose distributism and the world does not (and the world would not as the have different cultural backgrounds [Non-Christian let alone Non-Catholic] affecting their cultures) the world economy will continue to grow faster than the US economy.

As the US economy stagnates (like it currently is doing) but the worlds does not the US will eventually become a 2nd world power and eventually a 3rd world power. I am not saying that life would not be good for us and our children but our great grandchildren would become the pawns of larger nations who economies continue to grow.

While Distributism MAY work on a small scale it is no longer feasible in the world as we know it. I can buy a factory today almost anywhere in the world and start producing products overseas. If I limit the size I can be as an organization/corporation than I would change how and where I function and move even more business overseas. The wealthy will not voluntarily limit the power that their wealth provides them and will shift their wealth overseas. Until you can make man not be greedy as a group you cannot have distributism.

So my point in comparing distributism with communism is that while as a theory it is wonderful how do you enact such a system without causing the nation to have a drain on its wealth? I for one, do not want to go live in places similar to places I have visited in the world….. I enjoy my electricity, indoor plumbing, and since I live in Florida most especially my A/C.

Distributism is fine as a theory but we need long term solutions and not solutions that work for me but not my grandchildren.

avatar Mark Shiffman March 6, 2009 at 2:21 pm

Brett: Thanks for the clarification. You hit on the point that I was thinking of bringing up but didn’t: security. The real question is whether our military security depends on generation of vast surplus wealth. Adam Smith already made this argument in the last book of Wealth of Nations, when he pointed out that, subsequent to the invention of guns, the dynamics of history change. Formerly nations that got wealthy and soft were overrun by sturdy barbarians. With powerful technology you can win wars without overpowering a man by hand. Thus accumulation of national wealth becomes an advantage and a must for security and the race for power. So one limiting condition is the question of how threatened we will be if we are less vastly wealthy. Will we become pawns of other nations if we are less militarily powerful? Not clear. (This is where defenders of gun ownership can chime in.)

You haven’t made the case that distributism is not feasible, only that it does not suit people’s preferences. It may, however, become more of a necessity and overrule preferences.

(By the way, I can say from experience that it is possible to live in Florida without air conditioning. Look at the photo on my post and you won’t see an AC sticking out of the window.)
http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/?p=1165

avatar Brett Beemer March 6, 2009 at 3:59 pm

Mark,

First,I should say I love the picture and I hope that I get time to read your blog on this site in the next couple of days.

Next is has been pointed out to me that I should clearify what I mean by true communism as it appears to mean more than I would have it mean. I would use the example of the early church in Jerusalem for true communism (which means that I accept that there is a god). Each gave what they could and each took what they needed. Loafers were not tolerated as everyone has something that they can contribute (and I believe that today).

As for the issue of Distributism not working in todays world let’s look at a couple of different problems that I see that exist.

1. Most of the wealthy are not truly tied to the USA like most Americans. Instead they are cosmopolitan and enjoy living in the USA because it is the culture they grew up with. If their wealth is threaten by rules and laws (Government intervention) to be redistributed so that many (and by many I mean a majority) control the means of production they will move their money to other countries. Very few are willing (and by that I mean volunteer because if they would volunteer they would have done so already and would no longer be considered wealthy) to give up their money. Today if I have my money here I can transfer it through stock purchases or wire transfers to other parts of the world today. I would also argue that the wealth contain the largest voices in our culture today so they have some control over the direction that culture moves. That was not the case 50 years ago except Randolph Hearst.

2. How do we get the means of production from the few. I do not believe that distributionist mean to nationalize them (government control to redirect who gets what…. I am sure that would work). And I clearly hope you do not want to follow the Zimbabwe experiment of taking things from people who know what they are doing to distribute them to those who do not. Even the concept of guilds (I believe that Belloc hinted at this concept)running areas has never really worked well on a national level but instead led to protectionism and also closing down new people who wanted to start a business that was not part of the guild. Any transtion from capitalism to distributism is going to take force in some form and shape. Who ever controls that force must be willing to relingish it afterwards. Very few will do so judisiously.

3. Next spreading the means of production may not be the most efficient or the most Green (and I know that may not care to most but I really would like to leave the world better when I am gone than when I got here, in fact I believe it is the responsibility of all christians to try and do this). Better to build one large factory to produce items and reduce polution than many small factories. Better centralized locations to transport goods with trains than having to move small amounts of goods through trucks. The ROI or ROA is ussually better for most things produced.

4. As for the military question I am not talking about defending ourselves, I am talking about our ability to get countries to do what we want. The threat of power is ussually far more effective that actual use. As our economy shrinks are ability to influence others will shrink. The shift will be slow and as it happens our ability to get raw resources shrinks limiting our economy even further.

I believe that most people on this blog would agree that we have a problem with a government to large and corporations that seem to have too much power.

My questions for the distributionist are:

How are you going to change where we are today to get to the end goal of a distributionist society?
How are you going to get man to be content with what he has because it seems that without this there will always be poeple who try to build a large monument (government or corporation) to themselves or want power?
How are you going to keep the wealth that we have from being transported out of the country?
Related to the above what are you going to do with so much foriegn ownership in the USA?
Finally how are you going to seperate our economy from the global economy as they are so much linked together nowadays?

avatar Tony McCargar March 7, 2009 at 9:13 am

Mr. Beemer has hit the final resting place of the hammer on the nails head. Human (sinful)nature. I am in no wise an economist; I’m a business person and an aspiring rancher/farmer who has used up all his business capital to subsidize farming. We here in southwest CO. are trying to move into a localized market of food production, but it is painfully slow moving. To my point of human nature; I look to an orthodox reformed view of total depravity (not uter) where the will does what it desires and since scripture clearly states that the desires of men are evil always we are deluding ourselves to think that men will act nobley in a distributist/collectivist society. There will always be some who think they are due more, and others who will just take what they want. Mr Beemers point of cost of production is a point that many try to scuttle aside with comments such as ‘we’ve become addicted to low prices’..it is a matter of survival in any economic society. When I bring my produce or stock to market to sell at “X” and my neighboring booth is selling at “-X”, who in their right mind is going to pay more? Sometimes I think those who argue for a smaller more localized society are those who already own their real estate, in whatever form it takes; are feeding at the collective troughs of government and institutional jobs; and those who have a “dream”. (I’m sure I missed someone in there)I know I’ve probably not made any sense or a point. However my overriding thought is; The transforming work of Christ in the heart of man is the only thing that can change that man. When our American evangelical churches go back to preaching the true gospel, we will see the effects of that in our societies. Maybe not in our lifetime, but we must continue in season and out of season. One of the things we miss about the begining of our American exeriment is the Christian consensus. Not all people held to the Gospel but they operated their lives, public and private, upon those principles therfor projecting a local and national value system. Since the late 19th century to today, our educational, economic and governmental systems have worked tirelessly to disconnect the value from its source; why are we surprised at the state we are in?

avatar Mark Shiffman March 7, 2009 at 10:03 pm

When I speak of addiction to low prices, I mean specifically food prices. Everyone but the most destitute in this country makes choices about what to pay more for. Most people, including low-wage parents, will shell out for Nike and XBox rather than for fresh and healthy food. I will not buy fashionable clothes or electronic gadgets for my children, but will pay more for milk to support people like Tony McCargar (even though he says I am not in my right mind to do so) and receive a better product. I have not been convinced by advertisers that I need things that I most certainly do not need. I have been convinced by experience, reading, thought, and insight that I should support sustainable food production. It is possible in some way that this is a result of the “transforming work of Christ in the heart of man,” in the indirect sense that Christ liberates from vanity and that love of the creation is love of the Word through which created things are what they are. But it is also more directly the result of being reasonable. I quite agree with Tony, however, that the churches ought to fulfill their commission and wake people up from their foolish habits of consumption, among other follies.

I think we are talking about entirely different considerations when we speak of the need of a privately owned business to control production costs and when we are looking at corporations. For a small business, it is enough to be profitable. For a corporation, there is a necessity to be more profitable than it has been before, or its share prices will slip. This means to my mind that a publicly traded corporation is constitutionally incapable of good business practices, except in rare cases of courageous and wise leadership. So while all forms of business present plentiful occasion for sin, local involvement and employing people whose families you know provides some incentives for decency, while corporate abdication of all responsibility except to investors makes inhumane relationships seem normal and acceptable.

avatar Mark Mitchell March 8, 2009 at 2:15 am

I am gratified that this discussion of distributism is continuing. Here are a few points in response to some of the objections.

I agree with Tony and Brett that we must never forget that humans are sinful creatures. But this does not mean that we cannot make good decisions or identify the good from the bad. We can all agree that democracy is preferable to totalitarianism or that freedom is preferable to slavery. This is important. If “total depravity” meant “always do the wrong thing” we’d be a lot worse off than we are now.

To say that distributism isn’t workable because it is not a longterm solution is to demand more of it than can be demanded of any economic or political position. Your grandchildren are not off the hook. If we make wise choices, they will still be responsible to make good choices of their own in times that will be different than ours. If we make poor choices, they will have to try to repair what we have broken.

To argue that globalism is inevitable and unavoidable, etc. is simply to deny the fact of human freedom. What we have today is the result of human freedom, and if we don’t like what we have, it can be changed. Besides, to argue that economic globalism is our inevitable future is, it seems, to ignore the elephant in the room: our current troubles seem to indicate that something is terribly wrong. Our “inevitable” future looks pretty sick. Maybe this is because we have taken a wrong path. If so, the answer is not to press onward. Wisdom would suggest we stop and reassess.

Finally, distributism is not really that strange of an idea. It is little more than Jeffersonian democracy. Jefferson believed that a nation of small property holders produced the best kind of citizens. This is the distributist ideal. This is not to say that everyone has an equal allotment of property. It is not to say that the government divvies up the property. It is to say, though, that a cultural and political preference must exist in favor of broad ownership of property. There are a variety of means by which this can be encouraged, including, but not limited to the tax code.

What passes today for capitalism is, more accurately, corporatism. The two are not the same. The kinds of political structures compatible with both are not the same. The kind of citizens formed by both are not the same. I think it is time we took a hard look at the road we’ve taken. There is a better way.

avatar Brett Beemer March 9, 2009 at 3:05 pm

My belief that globalism is inevitable is related to the reality of its current existence. Economically we are now a global society. Most countries choose to participate in the global marketplace to get the best price possible for a commodity. This leads for prices to be lower on end products as materials used to make a product are cheaper. This global marketplace has many different cultures and philosophies and yet the driving principle is supply and demand. When I look at distributism I do not see a philosophy that will work well outside the Western Powers as the culture and philosophy of many countries are so different from the West.

Therefore I assume that the discussion of distributism is really looking at distributism in the USA. Here is where I believe that distributism in today’s world will fail. As we redistribute the property (and wealth) in this country through whatever means whether it is political or societal or both and reduce the size of corporations we reduce our purchasing power. The cost of raw commodities will go up. As we buy raw materials at a higher price our ability to produce items will fall. While a big corporation will purchase raw materials for 10 items, a small business can only buy enough for 8 at the same price. This results in the end with a net loss of 2 items. This is lost wealth to overseas companies who will continue to be able to buy at better prices and make the 10. Without protective tariffs the consumer buying the same product would pay more for the one manufactured locally. If the quality is better that makes sense but in most cases the quality will be the same. The local population would then have to decide to live with less to buy the local product. “Buy American” as we have seen does not work that well. Using the auto industry as an example most believe that foreign cars are better made than American cars even though the price is about the same.

Here is one of the conundrums of globalization. Do we think it is smart or wise for people to buy more expensive products that are not better quality? If we decide to level out the playing field by using tariffs we are always going to be punishing someone locally as we help someone else. The tariff issue before the US civil war was so bad that some historians identify it as one of the key contributing factors to that war. Also with tariffs we have the government deciding who gets helped and who doesn’t. This does not leave us much different than today with the government deciding what is saved through bailouts and other laws. I personally do not believe that Attorney’s are the best for making these decisions.

This leaves us with two choices if we leave the globalized marketplace which it seems is what Mark Mitchell is suggesting with his choice for human freedom. One we slowly lose wealth over time as we are able to produce less and less and cannot compete in the world marketplace as our products become more expensive but in many cases will not have a quality factor to make them purchasable. As time goes on this means that our grandchildren will not have the economic means to maintain our lifestyles. I do not want my grandchildren to have less because I want more today.

The other choice is that we let the US government decide what industries it wants to promote through subsidies or tariffs. This is not much different than what we have today where the US government makes those decisions. I have assumed that we were looking for a change from our present problems versus just a redistribution of wealth so I have not really addressed this issue much.

It seems that distributist have tried to simplify the problem to a era in history when we were not so globalized. When trading was not really done between countries as it is today. When earlier that it was not so easy to buy things from overseas but instead you bought what the merchants thought would give the largest return. Today even as a small business person (and I am one) I will buy from overseas for the same product I get here if it is the same quality and the price is better.

Large corporations (regardless of their profit [evil] nature) are able to make the best use of resources. It makes more sense (and cost effective) to build one big factory and institute one pollution control system than to build numerous factories with numerous pollution control systems. It makes more sense for a large wheat farm that is 100s of thousands of acres and farmed by 15 people on huge machines than it is the 40 acre farms being farmed by 1000s to get the same yield. The issue that I think many are trying to solve is that because corporations are usually only interested in profits they eventually cause more problems than they are worth to society. History does not seem to really support this idea as recessions and depressions have always been a problem in history even before corporations became so large. Corporations are only as evil as those who run them.

So that leads to the issue of the rise of the federated state in the USA. This issue is not an economic issue but a political issue and your solution (if it needs one) to it depends on your view of the cause/rise in our federated state. I personally believe that the federated states always comes from people wanting more security. People as a general rule give up their rights for security as we have seen after 9/11 in this country. As time goes on the government becomes more consolidated and takes on even more power. Eventually the government gets to the stage where it is becoming a controlling factor in our daily lives. From here it moves to a dictatorship serving the needs of only a few citizens while most citizens have given up their rights. Finally a revolution happens and a new government is set up. This revolution could be violent (as China appears to be headed for) or non-violent and even led by an individual (I will use Teddy Roosevelt for this example).

As this cycle moves in a circle there is no one spot that is correct. There is no perfect solution for all time/situations. There may be good solutions for the problems today (and maybe a quick visit to distributism would be a nice revolution) but those solutions will not deal with the issues we have tomorrow and looking for a final solution (a one shoe fits all) will limit man’s ability to innovate to move forward (or backwards as the case may be).

avatar Mark Shiffman March 10, 2009 at 9:10 pm

Government always decides who gets helped and who doesn’t. That is inescapably part of what politics is about. Any regime (political, regulatory, taxation) favors some sectors and descriptions of business over others. This is one of the things citizens or their representatives (or their non-representatives) have to exercise judgment about. The question is what we ought to be helping and protecting and why.

It is already the case in the current course of things that our grandchildren will have less because we want more today. I can’t see how this will not result from the position Brett is defending, of prioritizing the availability of abundant consumer goods premised on international transport.

I flat out disagree with Brett on two points. One is that corporations are only as evil as those who run them. The very structure of the corporation encourages evil, if evil is the willing participation in the destruction of what is good. Someone has stock in Hershey, which is a mainstay of its hometown. Profits at Hershey stagnate for a few years. This person and 100 others (or their fund managers without consulting them) sell their stock in preference for something marginally more profitable. They end up earning an extra $50 a year and Hershey, because of the law of supply and demand for stocks, lays off 50 people to shore up its efficiency. It is precisely when people sever their connection to the business that they most influence its decisions, and CEOs repeatedly tell us they have no choice, because this is the way the market works As I said before, the acquiescence to evil is the norm, and it takes extraordinary vision and courage to resist for good ends.

The second point I disagree on is that it is better for a few people and machines to farm large tracts than for a lot of people to farm small tracts. (Part of the reason for this disagreement is explained in the last part of my post.) Admittedly, it is (in some ways) better in terms of short term efficiency — having more now — but not in terms of long term sustainability — enabling our children to have as much. But it is not at all better in terms of quality of life, unless you measure quality of life in terms of consumer goods (which seems what is implied in Brett’s argument). Moreover, small diversified farms produce less waste than large monoculture operations.

avatar Brett Beemer March 11, 2009 at 11:06 am

Mark S.,

I should state that I read you post on this blog “The Human Meaning of Poverty”. I will admit that I am still trying to get my hands around what is being said there but I plan to reread it many time so I fully understand.

On your point that corporations encourage evil because there is no personal connection is well stated and cannot really be argued against. I would still state while corporations encourage evil, the evil must be done by a person making the choices. I would use ATT at the beginning of this century. It was harassed by Wall Street but the CEO said he would do things the right way. ATT is still here while many of their competitors who were the darlings of Wall Street are not. It is the CEOs after the quick return (and their own large bonuses) not the corporations that are doing the evil.

I would also argue that the real value in a corporation is not the value that a stock is trading at. The real value is how good or bad it is making the best use of resources available to produce goods and services.

Now for farms and the quality of life. My personal quality of life is watching my attempts to grow vegetables fail, attending church and working Kairos Prison Ministry weekends but I am wise enough to know that I cannot decide what quality of life means for others. My assumption and it may be wrong is that most people currently believe that quality of life is about consumer goods. If it was about farming we would still be a nation of small farmers. I do not believe that there one definition for quality of life for everyone.

On the other hand large farms do use the least amount of resources to produce the largest return on products. It seems to me the responsible course is to leave more natural resources for our Grandchildren so they can decide what quality of life means to them. It may mean they want to have small farms and they will then have the option of arranging it or it could mean even a larger avarice for consumer goods.

avatar Mark Shiffman March 11, 2009 at 12:36 pm

Brett,

I’m writing not to push our exchange further (not right now anyway!), but just to say that I think your questions and challenges are a great contribution to the serious discussion we’re trying to have here. This is a medium that invites hasty expression of thoughts that need careful articulation, and you’re a model of patience in reading and responding.

Glad to have you on the porch.

avatar Brett Beemer March 11, 2009 at 3:32 pm

Mark S.,

I am thankful I was allowed to participate and I look forward to learning from those who are able to spend more time on these issues. I think it is minds like yours and and the other writers on this blog when properly expressed will move the country/society to make responsible and well reasoned choices. I look forward to what you all say. =)

avatar Ben S March 13, 2009 at 4:49 pm

Sorry, I’m late to the party and feel somewhat inadequate to add anything to the conversation that has been taking place between those more educated than myself. Also, please forgive me if I hit on something that someone has already said. I did want to make some quick comments regarding a couple of things you said Brett.

“Large corporations (regardless of their profit [evil] nature) are able to make the best use of resources. It makes more sense (and cost effective) to build one big factory and institute one pollution control system than to build numerous factories with numerous pollution control systems. It makes more sense for a large wheat farm that is 100s of thousands of acres and farmed by 15 people on huge machines than it is the 40 acre farms being farmed by 1000s to get the same yield.”

I think that it is not obvious that this makes more sense when you look at the question as a whole. It only makes sense when you view the situation from a single perspective, that of efficiency. It is definitely true that this is more efficient. In my opinion it doesn’t, however, make more sense from the perspective of the environment, or of the person who desires to have a small farm, or from the perspective of developing healthy rural communities.

“Now for farms and the quality of life. My personal quality of life is watching my attempts to grow vegetables fail, attending church and working Kairos Prison Ministry weekends but I am wise enough to know that I cannot decide what quality of life means for others. My assumption and it may be wrong is that most people currently believe that quality of life is about consumer goods. If it was about farming we would still be a nation of small farmers. I do not believe that there one definition for quality of life for everyone.”

I agree with you completely that there are different things that will define quality of life for different people. I think that you are also correct that most people do define, (mistakenly, I believe) quality of life by consumer goods. I tend to think that a lot of our consumer driven lifestyle could be adequately described in Thoreau’s description of modern inventions as an, “Improved means to an unimproved end”. Further, I think that few would argue that what they are currently employed doing represents the highest quality of life, so your argument that we would be a nation of small farmers if that was the best quality of life isn’t necessarily supported logically.

I have enjoyed reading the comments on this post and have learned a great deal and look forward to expanding my reading list based on some of the writers mentioned here. I’m thankful for this forum to be exposed to some very intelligent and thoughtful writers.

avatar Mark Shiffman March 15, 2009 at 5:58 am

Ben S: Nice quote from Thoreau.
On quality of life, you point out the disparity between what people choose from the work and “lifestyles” that seem available and what a life of quality might really be. Wendell Berry argues that what he calls the “total economy” (the global playground of corporate profitable destruction of lands and communities) destroys along the way the possibility, and even the vision, of life and work as “vocation”. That, I think, is a point worth reflecting on.

avatar Brett Beemer March 16, 2009 at 10:09 am

Ben S.,

I enjoyed your response and the different perspectives. You responded to my thoughts on large corporate farms with:

“I think that it is not obvious that this makes more sense when you look at the question as a whole. It only makes sense when you view the situation from a single perspective, that of efficiency. It is definitely true that this is more efficient. In my opinion it doesn’t, however, make more sense from the perspective of the environment, or of the person who desires to have a small farm, or from the perspective of developing healthy rural communities.”

We both agreed that corporate farms are more efficient. I would also argue that corporate farms if run for food production and society should also be better for the environment than individual farms. I will acknowledge that as they are usually run (profit motive only) this is not the case but I was looking at corporate farms as they should be run. As for developing healthy rural communities based on farming I would agree that large corporate farms would ruin this. But many rural communities are based on things other than farming. These communities should still work well and provide for the quality of life that those who need rural communities.

I will admit that I got confused in your second to last paragraph regarding small farms. Did I understand you correctly that small farming communities are best quality of life? I am not sure if it is or isn’t. My point was that most people do not think that it is because if most people thought that farming was the best quality of life more people would farm and we would be a nation of small farms. Instead more people look to creature comforts for quality of life, hence chasing the almighty dollar and the goods it can provide.

I am sorry to hear that many people do not do what they enjoy doing for a living. I assume you meant that by your comment “Further, I think that few would argue that what they are currently employed doing represents the highest quality of life”. I would agree with you that as most people do not define highest quality of life with what they do but with what they have.

I must admit that I to a certain extent fall into that category because what I would love to do is go diving every day and as such I should go work for a company that does diving every day like a dive shop. On the other hand I do enjoy my job greatly and have turned down offers that would almost double my salary. I personally would not want to be a small farmer for a living but I would love to have an acre here to farm for food for my family (I did get some tomatoes and watermelons planted this weekend). I do own a small farm overseas but currently it is rented or farms hands are hired to run it (I am not sure which).

So I will ask two questions for those who seem to argue that small farms are the highest quality of life.
1. Do the subsistence farmers in Bangladesh have the highest quality of life?
2. Are you currently a small farmer producing a majority of your family food needs from your farm?

avatar Ben S March 17, 2009 at 9:14 pm

Brett,

Thanks for your reply. I don’t often have the opportunity to engage in this kind of discussion in the real world, so I appreciate and enjoy your thoughtful points and questions. This is the kind of reasonable conversation that I wish we would see more often from our political pundits and leaders.

While I would acknowledge that it might be technically possible for a corporate farm to be good for the environment, I think that it is pretty rare at this point in time. I’m also not entirely convinced that it is really possible. Many corporate farms are vast monocultures that engage in farming practices that are not good for the soil, and consume high amounts of fossil fuels. As to rural communities, I am really only speaking from my observations here in West Texas. Most rural communities here are heavily reliant on agriculture, and seem to be slowly drying up and blowing away with the topsoil that has been destroyed by excessive cotton cultivation (sorry, I couldn’t resist the poetry of that image.)

I’m sorry, I didn’t adequately express my point. I was not saying that small farming communities are necessarily the best quality of life. As has been made clear in this exchange, quality of life is somewhat subjective. I was merely saying that the fact that people are not all running out and starting small farms or moving to rural environments is not proof that it isn’t a superior quality of life to the one they currently have. That may not have been your point though, and I would not argue with your point that people don’t think this is the highest quality of life. Since I’m sharing my opinion on the subject though, I would say that I believe a simpler way of life is a higher quality of life.

I also did not necessarily mean to say that we should all have only jobs that are 100% enjoyable every day. At some point in time, work is work. I do think that something can be satisfying or fulfilling without always being enjoyable. It sounds like you are very satisfied with your job, which I would say has a greater effect on your true quality of life than the stuff you can buy. It seems like you probably agree with this to some extent, as you mentioned that you had turned down jobs that would almost double your salary.

While I don’t argue that small farms are necessarily the highest quality of life for all, I do see it as being a good quality of life. In answer to your questions -
1. Probably not. I would not argue that there is no point where a lack of goods, money or food starts to have a negative effect on your quality of life. On the other hand, I have a friend who has been working with the Peace Corps in Africa, and he said that he has been amazed at how happy some of the people there are with relatively little material possessions. I think that there is a balance.

2. No, I am not. I am currently working on changing that though. If I had the resources I would be right now. My wife and I don’t want to go into debt to start this endeavor, so for now we wait, save, and do what little “farming” we can do on a small garden plot.

avatar Brett Beemer March 18, 2009 at 11:04 am

Ben S.

Thank you for your kind response. I should mention that a large amount of the support for the organization I work for comes from West Texas so I do like the people who live there.

I also would agree that having more does not make people happier and in many cases makes life worse.

I would also add that I too would farm if I could just get things to grow in my garden and not get eaten by insects and squirrels or destroyed by fruit flies. Also the land is way to expensive though recently I have been thinking that I may be able to buy some swamp land and grow rice.

So in reflection we are probably very close to the same opinion on life but we may disagree on the usefulness of large corporate farms when managed properly for the benefit of all of society.

avatar Mark Shiffman March 20, 2009 at 10:44 am

Brett: One of the most delightful small-farming homesteads I’ve visited was the home of a rose-grower in the Everglades. The variety and density of what you can grow in Florida is amazing. You really could supply yourself year-round with fruits and vegetables without a lot of land. My uncle lives in a quasi-suburban neighborhood in Ft. Myers and has let his lawn revert to a little fruit orchard. He lets people take what they want from trees near the sidewalk, which I suppose partially makes up for the fact that it has also become something of a blacksnake preserve.

avatar Dennis Larkin March 23, 2009 at 9:17 am

In politics, the Christian Democrat plan seems a way forward. In economics, Distributism or Binary Economics is the way.

avatar Mark Shiffman March 23, 2009 at 12:41 pm

Dennis: Maybe you could expand on the distinction between distributism and “binary economics.” As I understand the latter, it gives greater encouragement to widespread ownership of corporate shares but does not question the wisdom of publicly traded large corporations as such, whereas distributism does question it.

avatar Tim Gillett April 21, 2009 at 9:12 am

Referring to earlier comments about individuals and corporations being able to move themselves and their money to almost any part of the world, start up factories etc, where does this leave their citizenship? Where is the community to which they are still accountable?

I suggest there is no such community for such people. Not in any functioning sense. At some point doesnt mobility of people and/or their money (relative to the majority of the populace in any given place, who dont have anywhere near that same degree of mobility) make community, and the accountability only possible within a functioning community, meaningless?

I think Christopher Lasch mentions this in one of his last books.

avatar Brett Beemer April 24, 2009 at 1:55 pm

Tim,

I think you have hit a key idea there with community and corporations. There is no community for a corporation in the long run if it is in the manufacturing industry that last longer than the facility that is used to manufacture.

I have noticed in my wife’s home country that there is urbanization going on a community is being lost there as well. Large cities and suburbs are ultimately the death to community unless you have someone in a local neighborhood trying to keep it going.

I wonder how many people on this blog are still located where they grew up. Mobility + Urbanization = no community.

avatar mark November 22, 2009 at 10:34 am

Brett, Mark, Ben, etc.

Many thanks for a very informative and stimulating conversation. I just wanted to add a few points:

1. Large farms or small farms are not inherently good or bad for communitites, environment, stewardship of resources, etc. it’s all how they are managed. I know a large hog producer here in Indiana that raises corn to feed his hogs and uses the hog waste to fertilize his corn, etc. Yes, he has large combines, etc. But he asserts that the quality of the soil, etc. is better since modern farming techniques have been implemented than was the case a few decades ago. I guess the point is that a small or large farm poorly and wastefuly managed can be a net drain on resources.

2. On the other hand, I think that large manufacturing can be more efficient (more output for each unit of input, either labor or raw materials, etc.), this does not automatically translate into better satisfaction of need… Yes, I can get lower cost dishware made in China from Walmart but I cannot get unique designs or high quality ceramics this way. In fact, to say that globalization only supports the mass production of cheap goods ignores the fact that globalization also allows (via Web and worldwide finance and logistics) access to customized, quality produced (or even hand produced) goods from thousands of small producers all over the world. So a small producer of custom-made knives in Indiana can sell them to Tokyo or Berlin. This proliferation of micro-markets for higher quality, unique, smaller producers is an opportunity to help sustain local communities. So let’s be careful about branding globlization the great destroyer of value and community…yes, it can do that, for sure, but it does have some compensating advantages which need to be tapped.

3. Bigger production is not always more sustainable or more resource efficient; it depends on what’s being produced. Amory Lovins, for example, has long argued (persuaively, I believe) that more decnetralized production of energy can be far more efficient for our society as a whole. than building giant poweer generation facilities and wasting half of its power in moving it to end-users.

Thanks again, for such a high quality interaction.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: