POLITICAL IDEAS: by Allan CarlsonNews Weekly
Rebuilding an economy on family and community
, July 21, 2012
Although the Great Recession of 2008 now appears to be waning, it did bring to the surface old truths that many had chosen to forget: the business cycle has not been eliminated; finance capitalism is by its nature unstable; politically-connected corporations commonly escape market discipline; and there is nothing conservative about the “creative destruction” of a capitalist economy.
Indeed, a curious aspect of political labelling in America has been the conflation of the word “conservative” with the interests of the great banks and corporations.
I will focus in this article on a different gallery of American political thinkers and activists. In their deep respect for the integrity of the human person, in their allegiance to the natural communities of family and village, in their celebration of the family farm and the independent shop, in their devotion to private property, and in their reverence for traditional ways, these figures could be labelled conservative.
At the same time, their commitment to the ideal of economic democracy, their refusal to treat human labour and relationships as commodities like any other, their sympathy for the pluralism and peculiarities of small human communities, and their rejection of imperialism and military adventurism seem more attuned to the modern progressive label. They have been seekers after a “Third Way”, a social and economic system that in important respects would be neither capitalist nor socialist.
In Europe, these seekers included Great Britain’s Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton, architects of the “distributist” program (to which I will return); the Russian agrarian economist Alexander Chayanov, who crafted a remarkable theory of “the Natural Family Economy”; the Bulgarian peasant leader Alexander Stamboliski, who began to turn his nation into a model agrarian republic and who co-founded the “Green International” in 1923; Nancy Eriksson, a Member of Sweden’s Parliament who defended a curious political movement that might be accurately labelled, “The Desperate Swedish Socialist Housewives”; and figures such as Gilbert Dru, Etienne Gilson, and Wilhelm Röpke, architects of a vibrant mid-20th century Christian Democracy that aimed to build a Humane Economy.
These episodes effervesced in events of brilliance and excitement, sometimes reaching fruition, only to fade in the face of the two main 20th-century ideological contestants: capitalism and communism.
I want to tell you about three American writers and activists who also have been part of this quest for a third way: Ralph Borsodi; Herbert Agar; and Wendell Berry. I will also suggest ways in which their examples and ideas may help us understand the recent economic crisis and point toward an alternate conservatism for the decades ahead, one combining a preferential option for the natural family with a more decentralised, human scale economy.
For 25 years, from 1920 to about 1945, Ralph Borsodi was one of America’s leading public intellectuals. He had begun his career in New York City as a consulting economist and advertising expert for several of America’s leading corporations and trade associations.
Borsodi grew increasingly troubled, though, by what he saw on Madison Avenue. In a series of books, he traced a change among American companies from a focus on making products that met consumer needs toward an economy resting on high-pressure marketing, the manipulation of emotion, and heavy consumer debt. He denounced especially the new technique of “national advertising”.
More broadly, he saw modern finance capitalism working mightily to eliminate the free market. The real “competition” among corporations, Borsodi said, was a quest “to secure [political] privileges which enable their possessors to operate outside of the competitive market”. He indicted not only state-granted franchises and subsidies, but also licences, special tariffs, corporate tax breaks, and nationally advertised trade-marks, all of which — he said — conspired to raise prices, crush diversity, handicap the small producer and favour extreme centralisation.
In his best-selling 1928 book This Ugly Civilization, Borsodi more directly attacked the status of joint-stock corporations. He emphasised that they were neither a natural nor an inevitable development. They rested instead on a grant by governments of legal privileges, ones denied to families and individuals. These privileges included limited liability; perpetual life; and the ability to issue stock, bonds, and other debt instruments, which gave corporations huge advantages in raising capital.
So, what was Borsodi’s alternative? The working home, the economically functional home, he said, had to be restored; and this needed to be done in a revived countryside. As he argued, “Man, no matter how often he has tried to urbanise himself, can only live like a normal human being in an essentially rural place of residence.”
Setting an example, Borsodi and his family resettled on an abandoned seven-acre homestead near the Ramapo Mountains, north of New York City. Each family, Borsodi insisted, must also begin “an adventure in home production”, rooted in “true organic homesteads”. Gardens, chicken coops, a few cows and pigs, carpentry workshops, small machine shops, loom rooms: all were necessary in real family homes, he said. Careful experiments showed that a homestead equipped with appropriate tools and small-scale machines was more efficient in producing three-quarters of the products that a family home would need.
In a way, Borsodi and his wife also invented modern home-schooling. “When I compared Mrs Borsodi to the average school-teacher in the public schools,” he wrote, “I saw no reason why she could not teach the children just as well, if not better.” They brought their children home, and found that this “experiment in domestic production” — as he put it — also proved superior to schooling organised on a factory model. Two hours a day of course work, it turned out, was all it took for the Borsodi boys to keep pace with their public school counterparts.
The son of a prominent corporate attorney in New York City, Agar had an Ivy League education, including a PhD in history from Princeton University. In 1928, circumstances led him to England where he joined the editorial staff of G.K.’s Weekly, the journal owned and edited by the prominent English writer G.K. Chesterton.
Here, Agar drank deeply from the well of distributist ideas. Briefly, this idea-system was rooted in a rejection of socialism as immoral and unjust. It rejected as well modern capitalism, which — the distributists said — tended toward monopoly and toward a peculiar alliance of the great corporations with government: what Chesterton called “The Business Government”, or what his collaborator Hilaire Belloc called “The Servile State”.
According to Belloc, the Servile State existed when productive property was concentrated in a few hands and when most adults gained their livelihood strictly from a wage, tied in turn to government benefits, or the welfare state.
As Chesterton framed the matter, the distributist alternative rested on the premises that public life exists to defend private life, that property secures liberty, and that “all political and social efforts must be devoted to securing the good of the family”. Put another way, the distributists held that private property in a home, some acres of land, and basic tools were so important that every responsible family should have them. Again, this broad distribution of property was the distributists’ answer to both the so-called “wage slavery” of monopoly capitalism and its close partner, the welfare state.
Winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1933 for his first book, The People’s Choice, Agar returned to America. He wrote a long article in 1934 entitled “The Task for Conservatism”. Applying distributist analysis to the American setting, Agar — the historian — sought to renew the “conservative” label by appealing to “an older America”, a time when there was “virtue in and a moral plan for the nation”.
Central to this plan, Agar insisted, was “[t]he widest possible distribution of property”. To some of the nation’s Founders, notably Thomas Jefferson, “this meant agrarianism”, or self-sufficient farming. To others, such as John Adams, “this meant an interdependent community” of farmers and modest merchants, with government maintaining the balance.
All the American founders, Agar argued, 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 give a chance for a desirable life”.
Agar thought it possible that trends had gone too far in the wrong direction. He said: “If Americans have come to believe that a wage is the same thing as freedom; if they prefer such a wage, with its appearance of security, to the obvious danger and responsibilities of ownership, then they cannot be saved from the servitude which awaits them.”
Yet he concluded that a “redistribution of property” could still be accomplished; this was “the root of a real conservative policy for the United States”. The ownership of land, a home, machine-shop, small store, and/or a share of “some necessarily huge machine” needed to become the normal thing, to set the moral tone for society. This would make “for stability in family and community life, for responsibility, for enterprise” and for all the other virtues which had been sacrificed to “an unclean monopoly”.
Along with Belloc, Agar agreed that this goal was not in line with existing economic trends: “It must be produced artificially and then guarded by favourable legislation.” But there was little choice: “Either we restore property, or we restore slavery”, through the servile state which waited at the end of monopoly capitalism’s work.
In 1937, Agar, Borsodi, and others of a similar frame of mind launched the remarkable monthly journal, Free America. The lead editorial in the first issue defined the journal as “the meeting ground for those who are equally opposed to finance-capitalism, communism and fascism”.
The editors recognised “a fundamental community of aim in the Borsodi Homestead Movement, the Southern Agrarians [at Vanderbilt University] and their allied Distributist Groups throughout the country, the consumer Cooperative Movement, the Catholic Rural Life Conference, [and] certain of the Protestant rural life organisations”.
In housing, the goal was to build “the owner-occupied home of the free man”, where “living and producing a livelihood are welded into an harmonious whole”.
Like Chesterton, a poet, novelist, and essayist, Wendell Berry is the most important American writing today in the agrarian tradition. Born in Kentucky, he still resides there with his wife Tanya on a small farm overlooking the Ohio River.
The word most commonly associated with Wendell Berry is “community”; and he does give this often mangled term a fresh and vigorous meaning. In one exemplary essay, Berry provides a formal definition of “community” as “the commonwealth and common interests, commonly understood, of people living together in a place and wishing to continue to do so”; and also as “a locally understood interdependence of local people, local culture, local economy, and local nature”.
According to Berry, the “beloved community” makes claims that commonly trump the freedom of the individual. Individual rights and the satisfaction of individual desires “are limited by human nature, by human community and by the nature of the places in which we live”. This membership is “that company of friends” that gives pleasure and meaning to individual lives.
Even the landscape becomes marked by paths connecting households, a commerce of shared affection, trust, bounty, and work. Indeed, the true community becomes an almost living thing, a network for communicating news and gossip, part of a village’s “ever-continuing conversation about itself”.
Most good communities have shared characteristics, Berry maintains. They live by a “precarious interplay of effort and grace”. They can “enforce decency without litigation”, using techniques such as shunning and emotions such as shame to influence individual behaviour.
The vital community also rests on the natural economy of altruism, solving its challenges “by non-monetary exchanges of help”, not by buying things. Such living communities create people of superior moral worth: “Persons of character are not [governmental] products. They are made by local cultures, local responsibilities.”
Yet, in Berry’s mind, the modern world threatens and corrupts such true community. Berry points to the current commercial order as a sinister force. He writes: “As the salesmen, saleswomen, advertisers, and propagandists of the industrial economy have become more ubiquitous and more adept at seduction, communities have lost the loyalty and affection of their members.”
Neither conservative nor liberal defends any longer “the economic integrity of the household or the community”, which are the mainstays of family life. He notes that under a “conservative” President, Ronald Reagan, the American economy, “which once required the father to work away from home — a development that was bad enough — now requires the mother to work away from home, as well”.
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Some would dismiss Borsodi, Agar, and Berry, together with Europeans such as Chesterton and Chayanov, as hopeless romantics, with their ideas and arguments irrelevant to modern times.
I would reply that agrarian and distributist analysis had in the 20th century important policy consequences and that it may also offer insight into the events of the last two and a half years.
Relative to past influence, several projects launched by the American New Dealers during the 1930s had distributist roots, ranging from the Subsistence Homestead Program to the Housing Act of 1934. After World War II, the British Conservative Party adapted large portions of the distributist platform, pledging to create a nation of property owners — as an alternative to the Labour Party’s welfare state.
Down in Australia, the Democratic Labor Party, which featured a “model distributist program”, held the balance of political power for 20 critical years, starting in the 1950s.
Critics of agrarianism and distributism have argued that this social-economic scheme lacks specific policy ideas. The charge is unfair. From Belloc and Chesterton to Wendell Berry, they have advanced clear ideas for building a property state, where giant economic institutions would be cut down to a human scale and where all responsible families would own a home, productive land or small shop, and garden.
Specifics have included:
• To greatly expand home ownership by families, mobilise “the credit of the community” through locally-controlled, cooperative credit unions to enable “private ownership of houses and small plots just outside our great urban centres”.
• To break up monopoly corporations, legally support the extension of profit sharing and ownership to workers’ associations.
• To restore the small shop, use differential taxation against chain or “big box” stores (aiming at no more than a dozen shops per corporation).
• To redistribute land and other properties, tax real estate contracts “so as to discourage the sale of small property to big proprietors and encourage the break-up of big property among small proprietors”.
• To decentralise industry, cheapen electricity through expanded access grids “which might lead to many little workshops”.
• To encourage agrarian resettlement, the small family farm “must be privileged as against the diseased society around it”.
• To encourage families, provide generous tax relief to parents according to number of children.
• And to encourage urban home ownership, “there ought to be a simple rule: every [rental] lease should automatically contain the power of purchase by instalment”.
One may find these ideas misguided or wrong; yet they do offer specifics and point to a society neither capitalist nor socialist.
This policy platform rests on two pillars: trust in widely distributed private property as the safeguard of liberty and democracy; and faith in the natural family economy as humane and just. Could this be the next conservatism?
Dr Allan Carlson directs the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society, based in Rockford, Illinois, and is founder and general-secretary of the World Congress of Families. This article is from an address he gave for the University of Tennessee on March 24, 2011.