POLITICAL IDEAS: by Allan CarlsonNews Weekly
Ten principles of a property-owning democracy
, October 9, 2004
Conservative parties today are preoccupied with free-market capitalism and pay only lip service to traditional values of family, community and social cohesion.
Allan Carlson discusses an alternative vision, the Property State - based on widespread property ownership - which was espoused early in the twentieth century by America's New Agrarian movement.In discussing the New Agrarian version of "compassionate conservatism", a useful place to start is a 1934 essay entitled, appropriately enough, "The Task for Conservatism". Written by the popular historian Herbert Agar, it appeared in a remarkable, albeit short-lived journal, The American Review. This article stands as a model of "activist" or "radical" conservatism.
Agar was writing, it should be recalled, at the very worst point of the Great Depression. One-third of American workers were unemployed.
Agar argued that the label "conservative" had been thoroughly twisted by what he called the "apostles of plutocracy" into the defence of economic "gamblers and promoters". Agar sought to save the term by appealing to "another, and an older, America", a time when there was virtue in, and a moral plan for, the nation.1. The power of private property as a defence of liberty and the source of the good life
Central to this plan, Agar said, was "the widest possible distribution of [productive] property." For Thomas Jefferson, this had meant a nation of self-sufficient farmers. For John Adams, this had meant "an interdependent community" of farmers and modest merchants, with government holding the balance.
All of the American founders, Agar maintained, had held that "a wide diffusion of property... made for enterprise, for family responsibility, and in general for institutions that fit man's nature and that gave a chance for a desirable life." Physical property, in short, was so important to the full and rich human life that everybody should have some.
But America had lost its way, Agar continued. Under current economic conditions, the ownership of real property fell into ever fewer hands.
"The normal human temptation to sacrifice ideals for money" had grown, lifting "the rewards for a successful raid on society to dangerous heights." A culture of widely distributed property had fallen under assault by "the barbarism based on monopoly."
The great banking houses and financial institutions had destroyed "an entrenched landed interest" in the South during the Civil War. In 1914, the same group determined that America no longer needed an agricultural surplus for export, and it set out to destroy the independent farmer as well.
Agar called for an effort - at once "radical" and "conservative" - to restore the Property State. This "redistribution" of ownership must become "the root of a real conservative policy for the United States."
Agar stressed the radical and political nature of this attempt, for it was on its face inconsistent with existing economic developments. As he wrote: "It must be produced artificially and then guarded by favorable legislation."
The whole line of New Agrarians agreed on the same orientation, but pressed other points as well.2. Love of the earth
This second aspect will seem strange to many. Liberty Hyde Bailey, named dean of the College of Agriculture at Cornell University nearly a century ago, crafted most of the themes that would characterise twentieth-century agrarian thought, and an environmental passion was at the core of his vision. Bailey's most provocative book appeared in 1916. Entitled The Holy Earth
, it emphasised "the oneness of nature and the unity in living things," a process guided by the Great Patriarch, God the Father. As Bailey explained:
"Verily, then, the earth is divine, because man did not make it. We are here, part in the creation. We cannot escape. We are under obligation to take part and do our best living with each other and with all creatures. We may not know the full plan, but that does not alter the relation."
The true conservative, then, begins as an ecologist, aware of the inner-connectedness of our lives with the Creation.3. The positive value of human fertility
Harvard sociologist Carle Zimmerman, founder of the discipline of "rural sociology" in the 1920s, was the New Agrarian writer most committed to dismissing the gloom of Malthusian ideas. Instead of fretting about "overpopulation", Zimmerman celebrated high human fertility and an abundance of large families as signs of social health.
In his book Family and Society
, Zimmerman called "an absolutely stable or decreasing population... unthinkable for the survival of a nation."
In his massive tome Family and Civilization
, he stressed that hope for the future rested on "the making of familism and childbearing the primary social duties of the citizen." Zimmerman's celebration of small family farms rested on their very biological vitality. As he wrote: "These local family institutions feed the larger culture as the uplands feed the streams and the streams in turn the broader rivers of family life."4. The virtue of self-sufficiency
The economist Ralph Borsodi emphasised the need to ground one's life outside large impersonal institutions such as the corporation or the state. All families, he said, should produce two-thirds of needed goods and services within their homes, workshops, and modest gardens.
He showed how new technological innovations - especially electricity and the internal combustion engine - allowed for an efficient decentralisation of most productive activity.
The truly "free person" was not
"merely the man who has the infinitesimal fraction of the political power represented by a vote." Rather, the free man was one "so independent" that he could "deal with all men and all institutions, even the state, on terms of equality."
Only the self-sufficient household could support this level of independence.5. The bond we hold with ancestors and posterity
The Midwestern writer Louis Bromfield emphasised the linkage of generations in his great novel, The Farm
, drawing on his own family history.
During this time, the farm was a cornucopia. The breakfasts alone on weekend gatherings were magnificent: "sausages, waffles, and maple syrup from Jamie's own maple-grove, fresh strawberries or peaches if it were summer ... hot fresh rolls, and sometimes chicken and mashed potatoes, home-dried corn, and an array of jams and preserves ... ". Maria presided over the day as "a kind of priestess", watching happily as all her children and grandchildren consumed what she had grown and prepared.
Later, Bromfield saw the farm as a way to restore the bond of generations: those who went before, with those to come.
Our humanity, said the Agrarians, rested on this family chain-of-being and its rootedness in a place.6. Suspicion of the industrial mindset
Southern - or Vanderbilt - Agrarians taught that the conservative must serve as watchdog over industrialism's mindless sprawl.
In the early decades of the twentieth century, however, the new technological devices did not so much emancipate workers, as evict them.
The Vanderbilt Agrarians criticised modern advertising and modern salesmanship as "the great effort of a false economy of life to approve itself."
In an insightful turn of phrase, the poet and critic John Crowe Ransom emphasised that industrialism was a force "of almost miraculous cunning but no intelligence." It had to be controlled, he said, "or it will destroy the economy of the household."
In short, the Southern Agrarians saw one of conservatism's central tasks as the defence of humane institutions - religion, home, art, family, the higher learning - against the revolutionary force of industrial organisation.7. The importance of local attachment and regional identity
In his volume, Land of the Free
, Herbert Agar lashed out at so-called "world cities" such as Chicago, London, and New York. With their cosmopolitanism, their scepticism, their falling birthrate, their lack of morals, and their imitative and decadent art, such cities were the sure signs of the end of a civilisation, marked by "a hospitality to death."
Fortunately, Agar continued, America still had a healthy "native" culture, born - as in ages past - out of farming settlements. He had special praise for the regional cities of Nashville (home of the Southern Agrarians) and Indianapolis (home to novelist Booth Tarkington).
Agar continued, "As a result of their secession from the world-city, there are now four or five country towns where the local life is richer, where American culture is closer to defining itself."8. Religious faith as the source and protector of community
The Iowa-based Roman Catholic priest, Luigi Ligutti, was the most effective New Agrarian advocate in the 1940s and 1950s. As leader of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, he emphasised how the ownership of land and other productive property and the control of technology for human ends were mandates from God.
Land was "God's greatest material gift to mankind ... The farm is the native habitat of the family." And the farm itself served to bind the true community together.9. The unique power of marriage
This point was made with special effect by the contemporary Kentuckian writer, Wendell Berry.
Marriage, so understood, is an economy of joy. Berry's fictional character, Mary Penn, described how, with "a joyous ache," she knew that she "completed" her husband, as he "completed" her:
"When had there ever been such a yearning of halves toward each other, such a longing, even in quarrels, to be whole? And sometimes they would be whole. The wholeness came upon them as a rush of light ... so that she felt they must be shining in the dark."
Marriage is, in fact, a "great power" able to transform not only individuals, but the world. Held in the grip of marriage, time flows over husband and wife "like swift water over stones", smoothing and shaping them to "fit together in the only way that [human] fragments can be rejoined."10. Resist the temptation to use government to pursue good ends
The only true rural communities that survived the great consolidation of state power in the twentieth century were those who fiercely kept the government at bay.
The Old Order Amish have refused to accept state welfare, relying on their own community for help in emergencies. They have also refused most forms of farm subsidies and support payments. And they have grown from a Pennsylvania community of 5,000 in 1900, to 150,000 today, with colonies in a dozen states.
Contrast the survival and growth of the Old Order Amish with that of the rest of rural America, whose numbers fell from 30 million in 1900 to only four million this year.
These vanished millions were the families who submitted to state authorities, who took the advice of the government extension agents, who entered the string of state programs designed "to save the family farm".
These then are the "Ten Commandments" of the twentieth-century New Agrarianism. They illuminate a genuine, even a radical vision of compassionate conservatism.
For we live in another time, one of exuberant prosperity, with the value of stock certificates once more soaring. And we live in a time marked by a degraded, dehumanising culture, a so-called "world culture", featuring at its core "a hospitality to death".
Perhaps, if we take compassionate conservatism seriously, the agrarian mind in some form will have an-other opportunity on history's stage, in the century that now dawns.
- Allan Carlson is president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society and author of The New Agrarian Mind: The Movement toward Decentralist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (Transaction Publishers). The above article is an edited extract of his feature in The Intercollegiate Review (Fall/Spring 2000-01).