Missing Berry


I’ve not read much Wendell Berry, but Catherine has recently been making her way through his works and we’ve been talking a lot about what he has to say. The vigorous defense of local community focus, small-scale agriculture, and the inhumanity of “corporate farming” is compelling. I think it’s easy to take some of his statements too far — by far the majority of Americans now live in urban or suburban locations, and a small-town existence for a population of our size is actually much harder on the environment than reasonably green cities. His fundamental critique, though, seems to revolve around the difference between exploitation and stewardship of the land. That’s paired with his assertion that the corporatization of farming in our country has gone hand in hand with a profoundly destructive focus on productivity over sustainability.

When I saw that writer David Gordon was taking shots at Berry in his scathing article on Crunchy Conservatives, I wanted to check out what he had to say. To put it mildly, Gordon’s statements are frustrating.

[When critiquing the competitive ethic of capitalism], Berry has confused two very different things. In a war, each combatant aims to destroy the other. But economic competition is not a war. Quite the contrary, competition in a free market is a form of social cooperation.... “Losers” are not destroyed but directed to different lines of work.

“Competition is cooperation” is a pretty novel response, I’ll give him that. However, the meat of Gordon’s objection is either dishonest or profoundly ignorant.

At the macro-economic level, it’s easy to dismiss vanishing industries as the dying of buggy-whip manufacturers. Jobs moved to new sectors, and all was well! “Churn” can hide a great deal of destruction, though: a decade ago, when I worked with AOL, the company’s ugly secret was the horrible churn rate of its subscribers. Most people signed up, looked around, and left. As they exhausted sources of “new customers” their desperation grew: at one point, the cost of persuading a new user to sign onto AOL for the first time hit $120 in advertising and marketing. It forced an almost desperate emphasis on retaining new customers: even to this day, trying to canceling an AOL account is like breaking up with a desperate co-dependent significant other: “Just stay! We’ll give you three free months! No, six! Please!”

Human beings are not the interchangeable cogs that turn of the century “efficiency experts” liked to pretend. Lifetimes of expertise are accumulated, best practices are refined, and hard-won knowledge is accumulated when people pursue a vocation. The shift from local to corporate farming (not simply the success of one small business over another) is death for those ideals. To say that crushed farmers should become computer programmers or get jobs at Starbucks or some other make-work is missing the point completely. As a culture, we lose the things that they carried with them, and the cost of re-acquiring them can be bitter.

Farmers are not being forced to leave agriculture at gunpoint. Rather, they have chosen to grow crops for a market, or to seek employment with other market-seeking farmers. If they cannot make it in this activity, this means that consumers prefer to spend their money on other things.

Gordon seems to have skimmed Berry’s work, looking for choice quotes about capitalism and ignored the meat. First, a nontrivial part of Berry’s work is about the dying of a culture and a way of life, not just a particular set of economic calculations. The idea that The Market is the measure of goodness — a fundamental assumption present in Gordon’s response — is exactly what Berry lamented. Secondly, Berry argues and I agree that competitive markets are stacked against those who work in a sustainable fashion. Short-term exploitation of resources will always be cheaper, easier, and simpler to scale. Like the difference between saving for a purchase and buying on credit, comparisons that ignore long-term consequences are fundamentally flawed, no matter how happy consumers are to get corn a few cents cheaper.

I could go on, but again, it’s frustrating. I think I understand the emotional component of Gordon’s reaction against Berry. I share a lot of his skepticism about the ideals of small-community living! But the critique he levels at Berry’s work strikes me as fundamentally ignorant. To deny that destructive upheaval accompanies these Market-driven shifts is nothing short of a lie. And to claim that the shifts are inherently good, because The Market drove them, is nothing short of insanity.

Update: Via Daniel Larison, Jerry Salyer takes some brutal shots at the article from a conservative perspective. Quoth Salyer: “It is also a bit thick that Gordon—a senior fellow at a think-tank which is devoted to promoting a single, exceedingly specific school of economic thought—has the gall to label a farmer an ideologue.” As Instapundit might say, “Heh. Indeed.”

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