An (agri)cultural Essay: Thanks Wendell Berry

Tony SigI have been reading up on the well known and well honored agricultural and cultural thinker Wendell Berry. He is himself a farmer and a potent critic of what the federal government has done by way of legislation to undermine (he believes) the vital connection between agriculture and wellness, health and wholeness. I want to explore some of his critiques and assert that I agree with him: Rampant urbanization and denigration of the rural, has led to a dysfunctional cultural relationship of people to their food; that which necessarily sustains us all.

In Berry’s essay “The Body and the Earth,” Berry argues that “health” is best understood as “wholeness.” The healthy unity of life in its various parts; spiritual, relational, mental, physical – all of which are tied together via “culture.” That is, the lived way in which we construct our worlds. When one or more of these are neglected or inflated to an imbalanced proportion, other parts of life end up suffering from the disparity. People often speak of their life being “imbalanced,” but perhaps surprisingly, unless one is overtly obese or suffering from a painful illness, people do not often look to the food they eat as a possible reason why they are tired or depressed, spiritually inattentive or perennially bored.

This may be the symptom of highly compartmentalized lives that we often live in the city. We get up at home, we go to work, we head to school, we eat out, we go to church, and so our education, our living, our spirituality, our safety, our food; is all divided up to different locations, different times, different social crowds. All this divides our wholeness, our cultural unity, and especially in the age of “fast” and “diet” foods that allow us to speed along with the “important” things in life, we forget, with our concrete roads, our steel buildings, that even the most processed of fast foods had to come from a field somewhere even if it stopped at a factory along the way.

But the fields aren’t what they used to be. In order to provide the types of food to sustain a fast-paced urban society, effiency is the rule of the day. Which means that food is grown too much on fields which are depleted of their nutritional resources and even mildly (or not so mildly) poisoned by artificial fertilizers and pesticides which aren’t even spread anymore, but sprayed. And so “By dividing body and soul, we divide both from all else.” One might add, by dividing sustenance and life, we divide a part of life.

That which sustains life itself is marginalized to an afterthought in life. Where our food comes from, how it’s been treated and what it does for us is subsumed underneath the functional. Even if we like the taste of food, perhaps even taking pleasure in it, the real life connection between the field and the plate (or the box or the bag) becomes a mystery. Sacramentalized in the modern grocery store where we can have a pepper in December from Brazil, shipped on a freighter, coated in wax and “preserved” with an unripe picking and the spray of a wand.

This can only be seen if we decide not to view health as the mere absence of illness. A belief in this view of health can be strangely violent to our own bodies and their physicality. As if not-suffering somehow is rich enough not to need to be filled up by literature, music, relationships, sex. This is perhaps to be expected when art is now reserved for “artsy” people only and classical music is the weekend hobby of the rich. Instead people have entertainment. They listen only to “what’s on the radio,” not exclusively but while they drive; they dance in clubs, alone in the dark, to pounding music; they watch “reality tv” leaving their own lives shallow and tired.

What then of apples and oranges? Is it really right to connect the club and the farmer? Or is it a stretch? Berry says in another essay that the life of the farmer teaches an integrated life. One that doesn’t run on a clock but on intuition, lifelong learning, and endurance. It is not so much that everyone needs to move to the country (though I’m not always sure that’s not such a bad idea) and start feeding goats. But the knowledge of the rhythm of life that comes from being more deeply connected to creation and its pivitol role in providing the sustenance for life is not something to be dismissed lightly. Especially considering that it has only been the last several hundred years that we have moved past hundreds of thousands of years of essential connection to the earth.

So health must not be thought of in shallow and simple terms, as if it is just one more part of life. Rather health is the interconnectedness of the various aspects of living, related as a whole expressed by what we commonly call “culture.” Music is rich because cheese can be rich, and life can be balanced, as say a well aged India Pale Ale, food is life and life needs the circle completed.

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26 Comments

  1. Me personally, I’m glad I’m not a farmer. I’ve got spinal arthritis, and I’m glad for the all the modern conveniences that make life livable–cars, so I don’t put pressure on my joints walking everywhere; grocery stores, so I don’t have to buy my own food; a diversified economy, so I don’t have to earn my living through backbreaking farm labor. I’ve never really appreciated the Jeffersonian (or Berryite) emphasis on the virtues of farming. I don’t think urban life is any less authentic than agricultural life just because we’re disconnected from the land.

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  2. I often wish I was a farmer. I do feel that disconnect and know first hand the negative affects agricultural polity is having on the world. Why are we getting produce from across the world in the US? Doesn’t make any freakin’ sense.

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  3. We are getting produce from across the world in the US because markets are international. We sell our produce abroad as well. Does it make any sense? Sure! It helps the economies of developing nations. (Don’t you want to help the poor?) It guarantees that our nation will not experience famine due to drought, blight, locusts, or weather events–which happens in countries with closed borders. And it also means that the strawberries on my strawberry cheesecake at the Cheesecake Factory will always be fresh, because they’re always imported from countries where they’re currently in season.

    If you’re feeling disconnected from the earth, I suggest that you move to Bakersfield and pick crops with the migrant workers for a while. The funny thing is that they all want to get out the farming business ASAP for other work.

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  4. George,

    They want to get out of the farming business because it doesn’t pay :), and the world we live in has no value for anything that can be cheaply gotten. It’s the same reason why I’m not a landscaper anymore…it feels good to work under the sun with soil in between your fingers but it doesn’t pay the bills.

    Wendell Berry’s ideal has no place for the Cheesecake Factory on the premise that a chicken you kill, pluck, and cook yourself ties your soul to the earth in a way ordering a Chicken Parm sandwich cannot, and this connection is more important than convenience.

    And isn’t that what it all boils down to? We love our convenience and this is the reason we will never realize Berry’s message as a people.

    This age-old argument for conscience-less enterprise that proclaims, “Let’s give the poor work” and attempts to justify free market economics is just that-an empty justification.

    The main difference, George, lies in what you believe about our “system” as it is. You seem to be quite comfortable with it. Berry was not, and tried to get us thinking in a way that tied us to community rather than having us depend on international economics.

    Great post Tony. I have a friend who is practically a disciple of Wendell Berry. He is very serious about what he eats and what he buys. He calls it 360-degree Christianity and it is a very high call.

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  5. jmalutinok:

    You’re right about the “main difference” between people like me and people who like Wendell Berry. We are more comfortable with the “system” of “free market economics” than he is.

    I’m intrigued by your statement that, in Berry’s worldview, “this connection is more important than convenience.” That’s a nice sentiment, of course–unless you’re the chicken, who gets axed either way. But people who live in urbs, suburbs, and exurbs haven’t had that kind of connection to their food in quite a while. Is Berry’s argument that we should abandon our urbs, suburbs, and exurbs in order to find this more authentic connection with our food? Why the heck would I want to do that?

    And one other thing: It is easy for us wealthy Westerners to pine for the golden age of rustic simplicity and by doing so to ignore the unrelieved squalor that that simplicity usually carried with it. The world’s poorest countries have agricultural economies, little manufacturing, and little urban infranstructure.

    The first half of your statement about migrant worker pay is right: “it doesn’t pay.” But the second half is wrong: “the world we live in has no value for anything that can be cheaply gotten.” Actually, we value cheap food because it leaves us money to purchase other things: homes, education, vacations, healthcare, not to mention charitable donations to povery relief organizations, etc.

    This conversation is reminiscent of the debate between Jefferson and Hamilton over the nature of our country. Would it be a nation of yeomen farmers or a commercial republic? You’re a Jeffersonian. I’m a Hamiltonian. I have no idea how to resolve the dispute. Neither did they.

    George

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  6. George,

    Yea I agree-not sure how this debate could ever end.

    You’re right in part by saying that “the world’s poorest countries have agricultural economies, little manufacturing, and little urban infrastructure.”

    However, living and travelling in Eastern Europe for a while, I have witnessed Capitalism rape those countries in many ways; it is perhaps the lesser of two evils when compared with USSR-style Communism. Much of these former Soviet states are ruled by oligarchs with oil money rather than any congress or parliament. And what to say of their infrastructure-thriving, bustling cities complete with beggars, orphans, child drug addicts, band-aid peddlers, and elderly people living on less than $100 a month (who are quite nostalgic for communism).

    To be honest George, it is difficult to listen to the phrase “us wealthy westerners” having spent a portion of my life looking orphans and street children in the eye and watching them get no help from their capitalist system. There are plenty of poor “developing” countries who are modeled after the capitalist system whose cities have vast infrastructure and whose “squalor” cries out to God everyday in innumerable desperate prayers.

    I speak as no wealthy westerner looking on at a distance and theorizing about grand gestures of rustic simplicity.
    I have spent a lot of time with these people, and I have come out with a certain painful desire to see a better model.

    Agricultural living is often sustainable living for the poor, not in our “green” sense but in the ability for them to produce what they need. Those that live in the cities become poorer. The poor of the city have no land and money replaces goods as the bartering item. In “developing” countries the poor are left out of this development.

    In a self-sustained agricultural economy, small community is built and people grow or make what they need. But of course here is our difference again, George. What is wealth? To many, it is monetary. A person in Rio De Janeiro who has his own apartment may be more wealthy than a Nepalese farmer but odds are the Nepalese family has not seen ever seen a television and doesn’t pander after Nike shoes or someone else’s wife…that may be a kind of wealth you are not ready to call “wealth.”

    Of course, I think we all agree that Jesus provides us with a wealth that transcends where we live, what we do, etc. Please don’t hear me saying that we MUST convert to a farming lifetsyle and that this is the ONLY way of living out our Christianity. I do, however, believe that Berry’s ideals would effect a more Christ-like and simple way of life in a global and local sense.

    So, George, if you want to smoke the peace pipe as a Hamiltonian and I as a Jeffersonian we can. And if you need some fresh air and want to take a trip you can always leave the city, come out my way and buy some fresh fruits and veggies. If you’re staying for dinner, I’ll put a chicken to the chop and you can get your sandwich, and if it gets chilly, I’ll lend you a sweater made from our Alpacas. Tony-you bring the IPA.

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  7. The globalized economy is not lifting people out of poverty but is perpetuating and creating poverty on an unprecedented scale. So called “free trade” enslaves thousands if not millions of women and children (not to mention men) doing hard labor for next to nothing. I could write (and have written) pages full of statistics, examples, eye-witness accounts, etc., but just as an example: the average American household spends $1500 a year on clothing; $55 of that goes to the people who actually made the clothing. We have lost all connection to where our products, our clothing and our food are coming from. As a result, practically every time we buy something, we are accomplice to slavery and injustice. This situation is enabled and created by the global economy. Since morality is dictated in the global economy only by what is profitable and what will produce growth, enslaving the poor in sweatshops to make cheap goods for the relative rich is seen as good, beneficial, and necessary. The global economy doesn’t call it injustice, it calls it “economic development.” On the other hand, James 5:1-5 tells us in no uncertain terms that God is really, really pissed off about this.

    Wendell Berry, E.F. Schumacher, Bill McKibben, even G.K. Chesterton et al. propose a different way–one where we are connected with the products we consume. Where we live simply so that we do not exploit those who are just trying to get by. Where our economy is not based on “growth” and “profit”, but on sustainability, community, common good, and happiness. The global economy can take its GDPs and stock markets and jump off a cliff (oh wait, it already did that). I want Gross Domestic Happiness, or maybe Gross Domestic Peace, or Gross Domestic Justice, and I believe that the world’s current economic system is a hindrance to all three.

    BTW, George, true conservatives need to stop being the poontzes of neo-liberal economists, and start living out the truly conservative principles of the conservation of our planet, our communities, and each other. Local Agrianism (i.e. Wendell Berryism) is far more conservative than any republican in congress as it advocates local government over centralized government, while at the same time more radical and *generous than any left-wing democrat in Washington because it involves a truly revolutionary departure from the status quo.

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  8. jmalutinok and James:

    What is your real name, anyway (jmal, not James)?

    Poverty is both Jefferson- and Hamilton-proof. Whatever system we adopt, the poor will always be with us, as a wise man once said. As Christians, it is our moral obligation to help them personally, and if there are unjust structures perpetuating their poverty, to change those structures.

    Of course, the disagreement will always be on what exactly constitutes an unjust structure. Both you and James seem to think that globalized free markets are unjust. You cite the example of Eastern Europe, which is hardly a test case for capitalism. I mean, really, when has Eastern Europe actually had a free market? It was presided over by protectionist monarchies in the 19th century, followed by socialist economies through most of the 20th century. To borrow a turn of phrase from Chesterton, it’s not that capitalism has been tried and found wanting in Eastern Europe, it’s that it’s been found wanting and left untried.

    Agricultural living is “sustainable” as long as there isn’t drought, famine, or some other disaster to wipe out the fruit of one’s labors for that year. That’s where markets come in handy. When such blights strike one region, other regions are able to sell their goods and keep people fed. Personally, I’m not into sustainable lifestyles. I’m into lifting people out of poverty. Capitalism does that better than any other economic system that’s been tried yet. That doesn’t mean it’s beyond criticism by any means. It’s not. William F. Buckley once joked: “The problem with socialism is socialism. The problem with capitalism is capitalists.” He was right, of course. Look at the current economic mess, driven by greed on Wall Street, Main Street, and Pennsylvania Avenue. But capitalism’s considerable flaws shouldn’t hide its considerable advantages. There’s a reason people flee Mexico for the United States, not the other way around. We’ve got the jobs.

    You’re right about the subjective nature of wealth. Of course, that’s also a fundamental insight of people like von Mises and Hayek. It’s even called the subjective theory of value. People value different things differently. In a market-system, I trade what I consider less valuable for something I consider more valuable, and you do the same.

    James cites the low wages of people making clothes Americans buy and calls it slavery. As a simple thought experiment, would those workers rather receive the additional $55 or not? My guess is that they would rather have the money. By arguing against globalized economies, however, James is essentially saying that we should take it out of their hands in favor of…what? Sixty years ago, Japan and South Korea and Singapore were the countries where we outsourced our cheap manufacturing. Over time, the wealth of those countries built. Now they’re wealthier, and they’re manufacturing much more sophisticated and financially profitable things. Markets take time to work, and as those emerging nations who specialize in cheap manufacturing build wealth, they will follow the same path as well.

    Finally, I’m not a conservative. At least I’m coming to see that I’m not a conservative. I’m a liberal in the classic sense of the term. I’m not real big on some of the side-meanings of libertarian, so I don’t describe myself that way, and liberal has bad connotations in the American context, but there it is: I believe in freedom (religiously, politically, and economically). Ergo, I’m a liberal.

    One more thing: You mentioned G.K. Chesterton’s economics. Like many at the turn of the century, he was a devotee of Henry George. George was a critic of protectionism and an advocate of free trade. See Protection and Free Trade here: http://www.econlib.org/library/YPDBooks/George/grgPFT.html

    George

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  9. George,

    Two points:

    I do not believe that ends justify means. Slavery as an end to “economic development” is still wrong, and should be eradicated. Your thought experiment creates a false dichotomy. There is a third way: stop exploiting people so they can take care of themselves and their families. That’s what worker’s co-operatives do. Organizations such as Equal Exchange, Ten Thousand Villages, and Peacecraft work with worker-owned co-operatives around the world to market their goods to wealthier nations, which provide us with a more ethical option, and in conjunction with mass outrage and protest force multi-national corporations to pay attention to human rights (a great example of this is the Immolokee Workers Movement–a grassroots movement of the poor which brought two big boys, McDonalds and Burger King, to their knees).

    These co-operatives, and other micro-businesses, micro-lending organizations, etc. are lifting people out of poverty, not Nike and J.C. Crew sweatshops. Neighbors helping out neighbors (i.e. co-operatives) is the answer to economic woes. The antithesis of that is what drives the global economy: selfishness and greed.

    As far as G.K. Chesterton’s economics, I was refering to Distributivism: his “third way.” He was completely disillusioned with capitalism as well as socialism by the end of his life, and so along with Hilaire Belloc (and others) he set down the theoretical framework for the economic system of distributivism which attempted to implement Catholic social teaching into an economomic system. Check out especially Chesterton’s The Outline of Sanity, and Utopia of Usurpers, as well as Belloc’s The Servile State.

    James

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  10. James:

    Aristotle would ask, “If the end doesn’t justify the means, what does?”

    You and I seem to be working with opposite assumptions about the nature of global free markets. You seem to think that they are necessarily oppressive and must be opposed. I think they can be oppressive and must be opposed when they are. So, when you go on to cite microfinance, co-ops, and the Coalition of Immolakee Workers, you seem to think these are necessarily alternatives to global free markets. I think they are situational alternatives to corrupt free markets. Our attitudes are very different in this regard and result in different practices. I’m not opposed in principle to unions, co-ops, and NGOs exercising a positive influence on markets. I am opposed to the idea that global markets are inherently corupt realities or that unions, co-ops and NGOs are inherently virtuous alternatives.

    I laughed when I read that the global economy is driven by selfishness and greed. The Immolakee workers are demanding higher pay. Does that mean they are selfish and greedy for doing so? Consumers demand lower prices. Does that mean they are selfish and greedy for doing so? Shareholders demand that their investments return a profit. Does that mean that they are selfish and greedy in doing so. I guess in your worldview it does, but that’s pretty arbitrary, don’t you think? All people–management, labor, and consumers–act in self-interested ways. That’s not necessarily selfish or greedy. It can become selfish or greedy when self-interest is tied to injustice.

    If multinations commit injustices, then rectify those injustices. I don’t have a problem with that. That’s what the law is for. What I have a problem with is the frankly silly notion that global markets are inherently corrupt or that only corporations–and not also workers and consumers–act in self-interested ways.

    As for distributivism, it’s a nice philosophy. I agree with it in parts. I’d love to see everyone own private property. The problem with it, however, is that it can make simple factual mistakes. For example, distributivism lies behind a lot of anti-trust legislation, which works on the theory that monopolies drive prices up. That’s true, they can. But one of the greatest monopolies in the history of America–the Standard Oil Trust–actually cut the price of petroleum products to consumers through the efficient ownership and use of wells, refineries, pipelines, and rail. Similar, Microsoft achieved efficiencies of scale through their dominance in the operating system market. That doesn’t make them inherently virtuous, of course. There were other problems with Standard, not to mention with Microsoft–which produces crappy software. For me, the key issue with “big capitalism” is whether it’s goten big through collusion with big government and whether business Davids are given free rein to try to pick the business Goliaths off. If a company gets big because it provides stuff people want at prices they want to pay, without any help or hindrance for goverment, good for them. And I hope my pension funds get invested with that company.

    George

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  11. George,

    You used the word “free” a lot in your comments. That’s where I differ with you. Besides the points by the other two commentators, which for my money were pretty much spot on, I do not think “freedom” is itself a valuable thing for a Christian to talk about except in the bounds of revelation. As Christians we are only as free to do as what we believe God has called us to do or enables us to do. And so no, the ends do not justify the means. Sure, those countries you mentioned are now much more well off than they used to be.

    But now they continue to cycle and are in turn using “emerging markets” and “affordable workforces” to continue to feed their newly acquired taste for the rich capitalist’s life.

    And, strangely enough, Berry is practically more conservative than you are in regards to markets. He is down on global markets which have eliminated “free” markets in this country by making the only profitable farming mass farming, replete with all its artificiality and depletion.

    The way you talk about free markets, it’s like nobody was truly happy before America.

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  12. Tony:

    I really don’t care if Wendell Berry is more conservative than I am. As I explained, I am more classically liberal than conservative. And, to borrow a turn of phrase from a young man I admire, “I don’t think that ‘conservativism’ is itself a valuable thing for a Christian to talk about except in the bounds of revelation.”

    You admit that the countries that have implemented free market policies are better off than they used to be. But what the left hand granteth, the right hand taketh away. You go on to condemn those same countries for living “the rich capitalist’s life.”

    Now, I find this a bit ironic coming from a college graduate who is using the internet to write learned discourses on foreign beers. You yourself, it turns out, are living the rich capitalist’s life. Indeed, you’re living the life of a free market capitalist, what with the swilling of all those imported beers you’re always chatting up. How exactly do you think those beers got here? How exactly do you think the internet got here? Why aren’t you out in the fields working with your hands instead of spending so much time on intellectual pursuits such as theological education and blogging? How lucky that you live in a capitalist society that affords you the leisure to do these things!

    Of course, I’m joshing you. But I sometimes wish you, jmalutinok, and James S. would realize that you’re part of the capitalist class that you seem to think is so oppressive. Or, at least, you benefit from the “poisoned fruit” of capitalism. Which means either you need to do some serious repenting or your capitalist habits or some serious rethinking of your anticapitalist ideology.

    And, of course, if countries that have implemented free market policies are better off than they used to be, if their poverty and immiseration have been somewhat lessened, isn’t that a reason to rejoice? Isn’t the lifting of the poor out of poverty a desirable end, from a biblical point of view?

    Of course, you don’t think the end justifies the means. My little Aristotle quip was something of a philsopher’s inside joke. Maybe you didn’t get it. I don’t know. But at some level, I think you must agree with it. Let’s say we agree that the alleviation of the estate of the poor is a desirable ethical end (telos, or goal). In that case, actions toward that end are legitimated by that end, as long as they don’t interfere with other important ethical ends (justice, say). So my question is what important ethical ends free markets necessarily violate? Not incidentally violate, but necessarily violate. I can’t think of any. James identifies multinational oppression of poor workers. I think this is an incidental violation. For his argument against capitalism to work, he must argue that it is a necessary violation. The easiest way to refute the necessary violation is simply to point to any number of multinational corporations who don’t oppress their workers. I’ll point to one I worked for: Mazda. Great job, great pay, great benefits, great two years of experience. And it’s a Japanese company in America. A multinational company operating in a global market, in other words. And yet, mirabile dictu, I was not oppressed!

    Look, we’re Christians. We have a moral duty to help the poor, both as individuals and as the church. And by extension, as human beings, we have a duty to help the poor, including making sure the legal structures in which they work are just. These points are inarguable. I think global free markets can be one of those structures. That’s all. And it’s arguable.

    George

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  13. One more thing

    Of course people were happy before America!

    And people were happy before capitalism.

    The real question is whether the great unwashed masses of humanity were able to rise out of their condition of poverty in such great numbers and so quickly before capitalism.

    My reading of history says no. What does yours say?

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  14. George,

    You’re right about one thing. I am not sure that totally free market economics are of necessity evil. I have not researched economics as much as James and you. I will say this, that it is my observation that how I have seen capitalism operate is incredibly harmful to some and not as much to others (though we have our own cultural depravities). Though there are still plenty of poor even in our own country; many of them rural because of global agriculture.

    And sure, I go to school (socialized), and pay for my computer (cash) etc… The reality is that we all are forced to participate unwillingly in systems which have holes that lead to injustice. That’s something I have to live with (and it bugs me in huge ways) hence why I am likely to move out to the country after school, some introductory research, teaching and parish ministry (all this is speculation).

    more on this later…I’m gonna be late to work

    Tony

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  15. George,

    Picking up, economic systems are not closed ideas for pages in books. They breathe in the real world. And because they do, and we are a fallen people, then fallenness will affect every system. And that is the borderline neccessary violation of justice in “free market” systems. “Freedom” eventually morphs into freedom of the few who acquire and manipulate that market via-monopolies. And so regulation is needed, but regulation is not free, regulation must follow ethical guidlines, and so because a free-market must still be ethically guided it is proof that it tends towards ethical error.

    btw- I drink Midwestern beers almost exclusively 🙂

    Tony

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  16. Our good friend Paul Stewart just tweated this

    “The French take 7 weeks of vacation each year. So far in 2009 I’ve taken one day, last week, and I feel SO behind. How do they do it??”

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  17. Tony:

    To be perfectly honest, I think you and the others are confusing income disparity and injustice. Bernie Madoff comes to mind; he defrauded investors of billions. But income disparity–event vast income disparity–is not necessarily unjust. I think of a family friend who owns a brand-name car wax company. He’s rich, but he’s earned his money. the fact that his wealth is measured in the millions while mine is in the thousands is no indication of injustice.

    You cite two specific examples of unjust income disparity: that arising from monopolies and that arising from global agriculture. Monopolies can be unjust, especially when they arise from collusion between big business and big government squeezing out competition. Without government intervention, however, markets tend to weed out monopolies. If you don’t believe me, compare this year’s list of Fortune 500 years with every decade preceding it until the list was first published. Notice how often companies come and go off the list. That’s what a healthy market does; it weeds out businesses that don’t produce quality products people want at the affordable prices they desire.

    Speaking of monopolies: The government heavily subsidizes the ethanol industry. It protects the growth of corn domestically, grants money to big agricultural to grow corn for ethanol, and requires gasoline to have a certain percentage of ethanol in it. Given the laws of supply and demand, this means that an artifically inflated demand for corn for ethanol production makes the supply of corn meal for food (tortillas, among other things) is artificially deflated, which further means that the price of corn for food is also artificially inflated. So, yes, monopolies create injustice. In this case, it is the government “regulation” of ethanol that screws Mexicans out of cheap corn meal for their food. This may surprise you, but no classically liberal economist I can think of supports the government subsidy of ethanol. They all oppose it precisely because it is a distortion of free-market principles. But politicians and their constuencies love it. Perhaps it’s not free markets that are unjust; perhaps it’s democracy.

    As for global agriculture, I’d turn the question of injustice back on you and ask whether shutting the produce of poor countries out of global agricultural markets doesn’t perpetuate an injustice against them and increase the income disparity between us and them. Funny how the issue of injustice turns the tables on your argument when framed that way.

    In principle, I agree with your theological comments about man’s fallenness and the need for regulation of his activity. The question is not whether regulation, but which. Even libertarians–the staunchest free market proponents alive–agree that law is an important component of free-market economies. The notion that free-markets oppose all regulation is a canard that should be retired. So again, not whether regulation, but which regulations? The basic rule of regulation in classically liberal economics is the prevention of force and fraud. Absent force and fraud, adults should be able to engage in mutually consenting acts of economics. As soon as the government begins picking economic winners and losers, begins “investing” taxpayer money in certain industries, or setting wage and price controls, it begins to favor certain segments of the economy over others. And, it uses a monopoly of political power to enforce its favoritistic decisions.

    You write: “because a free-market must still be ethically guided it is proof that it tends towards ethical error.” Yes, and so what! Replace the word free-market with socialism or humans or the Obama Administration and the result is the same. So what exactly does this point prove that speaks uniquely against free-market economies?

    As for the French: their unemployment rate is higher than America’s, their GDP is lower per capita, they have a huge population of disaffected Muslim youths who cannot break into the economy because it is too expensive to create new jobs or fire old employees, etc., etc., etc. That’s why so many French and other Europeans come to America if they want to get rich. And on top of all that, they’re still French. (Sorry, had to include a little traditionally Anglophile human at their expense! Freedom fries, anyone? LOL!)

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  18. I have enjoyed keeping up with this debate. I fear it will not soon end.

    My name is John, George. I don’t really have the energy to try to put a different spin on the same idea. I just don’t think you’ll change your mind.

    I will say this-go to Eastern Europe and check it out. I think you’ll disagree that most countries are not capitalist societies in comparison with their histories.

    I have to say I was a lot like yourself (minus all the Adam Smith book work) until I was able to remove myself from my own sphere of influence, not with my nose in a book but by throwing myself into the context of real people who suffered on the other, less beneficial end of the global market system. It was then that I decided to revise my definition of wealth.

    But you hit on a good point-as long as we have greed, we will have the poor, like Christ said. This is important to remember as we put our faith not in an earthly system which will always be fallen, but in redemption where no system is required.

    I would rather be debating this at someone’s table with a cup of tea or a brew. This whole internet commenting thing takes so much of the life out of intelligent discussion but I am very far from Minnesota…

    John

    Reply

  19. George,
    Your comments concerning my need to repent of my capitalist/consumerist ways are true and have hit home. Just for the record, however, I do not believe in socialism or communism as such, nor do I believe necessarily that all capitalism must be evil, just that the current economic system is greedy, etc. If I have overstated my points in previous posts to contradict what I just said, then I retract those statements. I have a proclivity to exaggerate.

    I believe in an economic system that is centered on buying local and ethically traded goods. I have been working pretty hard to consume less and consume more consciously, buying as many local, and/or fair trade things as possible, but thank you for calling me out, and keeping me on my toes. All of us holier-than-thou-hippies need constant conviction or else we are unbearable (maybe we are anyway!).

    To all theophiliacs (and comrades) everywhere:
    Happy International Workers Day; Peace-not-war-don’t let man get you down-hell-no-we won’t go-we-shall overcome, etc!

    Reply

  20. John:

    I’m in Santa Barbara, California, not Minnesota. Where are you?

    One way to settle this debate–or if not exactly “settle,” then move it along–is to examine whether the standard of living among eastern Europeans has risen or fallen since the end of communism in 1989. Then we could correlate that rise (or fall) with the degree of economic freedom using the Heritage Institute’s Index of Economic Freedom. If the standard of living rising correlates with economic freedom, then perhaps that pushes us closer to a resolution.

    James:

    I was being sarcastic when I suggested repentance. For me, having wealth is not necessarily a sin. Not using it properly is. In a wealthy society such as ours, it is possible (and darn near unavoidable) to enjoy a good standard of living as well as to give generously to church and charity. What I am taking out of this discussion is not that capitalism is bad–which is your intent–but that there are many more opportunities to be generous with whatever wealth God has provided me. I don’t need all the stuff I have, and I should do more to help those who need.

    If you’re proud to celebrate a holiday commemorating bomb-throwing anarchists, God bless you!

    George

    Reply

  21. Yes, I know that you were being sarcastic. You also didn’t read the rest of my post. Either way, while there is a lot of violence associated with May Day, and I do not condone violence of any sort whether it be disaster capitalism or molotov cocktail anarchism, I do celebrate May Day because it is a celebration of the 8 hour workday, 40 hour work week, the weekend, and other rights wrested from the hands of industrial slave masters by the international worker’s movement.

    Reply

  22. Um, James, I had to have read the rest of your post in order to make comments about your celebration of May Day.

    I didn’t comment on the middle paragraph regarding fair trade and local producers because it was your statement of personal preference, and classical liberal that I am, I’m not going to argue with your personal preferences.

    To me, fair trade is a variation of free markets. In free markets, producers and consumers negotiate price. In fair trade, producers and consumers negotiate price and the additional conditions of unionization, labor conditions, etc. Of course, it is quite possible that non-free trade producers allow for unions and good working conditions, but they don’t buy into the whole Fairtrade certification system. So, one of the things you get with Fairtrade certification is the comfort of knowing that you don’t have any moral qualms about the producers. Whether that necessarily makes fair trade morally superior to free markets is an open question in my book.

    George

    Reply

  23. George,

    We’re going to have to agree to disagree. I have no desire of defending what I’ve seen with my eyes and felt with my hands against wealth indices.

    I’m in ATL…

    Reply

  24. the main issue i have with the current system is how it is based on many false ideas:

    things like:

    giving a value of zero the the natural resource tha is goin to be exploited/extracted/developed

    assuming never ending growth although the resources are clearly limited

    assuming that there is a “free market economy” when there is no uniform environmental and worker protection legislation

    talking about free trade when countries like the US or the EU place tarifs, give subsidies, implement quota systems, and generate a ton of distortions that simply defeat the purpose of a true free market

    assuming that the system is not based on greed. corporation are inherently predatory because if all the costs were accounted for the true cost of the product would be much higher and the standard of living that we enjoy in developed countries would have to be much lower, at least at this point.

    assumming that technology will compensate for the depletion of resources when at the end the forces of nature dictate that as we pour more energy into the systems we manage more entrhopy will be generated and “leaks” will occur that harm the global ecosystem

    the assumption that by a higher GDP gives higher standards of living, or that higher income is necessarily a higher standard of living thus ignoring health and other aspects of the global ecosystem

    Neither straight capitalism or straight communism will lead to a more just system. The free market is also a reflection of people’s actions. George Soros has writen and spoken to that effect and considering his success as an speculator in the market i would bet he knows what he is talking about. Government involvment is necessary to avoid bust and boom systems that ultimately hurt the poor and destroy much wealth in the wrong places at the wrong time.

    I am wondering if anyone here has heard of socialist democracy… (I think Canada has some of that, Costa Rica, maybe some baltic countries, and a few more) as any system it can be brought to excesses, but it tries to blend the good things that capitalism brings to the table while accepting that there is some social responsibilities, such as health care, education and freedom that need to be protected by society through governmental action. Thus, they are not left open for the free market economy to make money with.

    I am not a christian but i am not an atheist either. I just think that together we can find ways that are more sensible, rational, efficient, just, and economically viable.

    It has been nice to read all of the postings.

    thanks

    mauricio

    Reply

  25. Thanks for your thoughts Mauricio. I think you are dead on in criticizing the assumption that unlimited growth is possible or even desirable; that technology will compensate for our destruction of natural resources. People put a lot of faith in “Economists” and “Scientists” as if they were going to be our messiah, and save us from our economic and environmental disasters, so that we can keep on creating more economic and environmental disasters in the future. I wonder if they are who Jesus was talking about when he warned his followers to be aware of false messiahs?

    Reply

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