[Part 1 is here.]
Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, details how the growth of government-corporate cronyism during the past 120 or so years has been largely a phenomenon of the socialist left. Wendell Berry misses this crucial historical insight in his running critique of capitalism, and his missing it draws him into flatly inaccurate claims, as when he asserts that “the United States government’s agricultural policy, or non-policy, since 1952 has merely consented to the farmer’s predicament of high costs and low prices; it has never envisioned or advocated in particular the prosperity of farmers or of farmland …”
This makes it sounds as if the government is largely uninvolved in agricultural markets, letting the winds of the free market blow wherever they wish. It’s true that the U.S. government has moved away from buying and destroying food as it did under FDR in the Great Depression, a statist attempt to prop up commodity prices while countless Americans went hungry. But even since 1952, and in a dizzying number of ways, the American government has been busy erecting all manner of protections for American agriculture, from fat subsidies on rice and other grains to import quotas on sugar, price supports on milk, and a long-running policy of paying farmers and ranchers to idle parts of their land.
The most recent version of the U.S. farm bill as of this writing, passed in early 2014, runs to over 600 pages of bureaucratic busyness—and keep in mind, this is only the additions and modifications to existing U.S. agricultural laws and regulations, not the sum total.
Despite this sort of meticulous involvement in the agricultural economy, family farms have gone bankrupt by the hundreds and thousands over the years, often in waves. Some of this is just natural market forces at work, but government policies also have contributed, and in ways that Berry’s sweeping talk of “sentimental capitalism” obscures rather than illuminates.
A clearer analysis can be found in the writings of Gene Logsdon and Joel Salatin, agrarian authors and family farmers who champion environmentally sensitive agriculture and the blessings of robust regional food networks, but who also give detailed accounts of how their chosen pastoral lifestyles are under constant attack from big government working hand in glove with special interests to limit the economic freedom of small farmers. Jay Richards and I lay out their arguments in a chapter of our forthcoming Ignatius Press book The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom that Tolkien Got, and the West Forgot. Here, I’ll just touch on some of their main points on this score.
Salatin is a well-known face in locavore circles, having been featured in the popular documentary Food, Inc. and in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. In Salatin’s book Everything I Want to Do is Illegal, the Virginia farmer shows in disturbing detail just how much liberty has been stripped away from food producers, agrarians choked by government bureaucracies and bureaucratic policies that often appear designed to eradicate small operations.
Logsdon is similarly damning in his critique of the federal government’s bull-in-a-china-shop interference with regional farming markets. In The Contrary Farmer, he explores how Washington policy has drawn small farmers into excessive borrowing and into putting patches of land better suited for other crops into corn, thus diminishing the agricultural and cultural diversity of whole swaths of America. The economic effect on the retail level is to shrink opportunities for obtaining a rich variety of local produce in places like rural Iowa.
So, is the answer more government interventions and manipulations of the market to repair the consequences of the previous interventions and manipulations?
When it’s framed that way, it sounds obviously silly, but opponents of economic freedom are either too shrewd or too confused to put it so baldly. Instead, they talk about the woebegone American family farmer and the need for Washington to come alongside him and protect him from the greedy and predatory capitalists, those faceless elites who send their lackeys out to push all those good folks off of their land. Anyone who has read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or seen the old John Ford film adaptation can play the scene out in his mind.
What this trope misses is that Uncle Sam is often the unseen culprit, driving the family farm out of business with a web of regulations and market manipulations that tilt the playing field in favor of corporate agricultural.
Berry talks about the little guys, the “rabbits” lacking holes in the capitalist system. But where the little guy in the developing world most often lacks a “hole” to escape from market predators is in his lacking secure property rights.
Internationally, most peasant farmers have no hope of getting secure title to the land their family has farmed for generations, since whatever local tribal chief who’s in favor with the country’s national government usually can do whatever he wants with the land. This isn’t capitalism. It’s the absence of a crucial ingredient of capitalism, property rights.
The property rights problem is only the tip of iceberg. The poor of the developing world have been walled out of the formal economy by a thicket of regulations and bribe-seeking bureaucrats that few poor people can ever surmount.
Peruvian development economist Hernando de Soto explores this in his indispensable work, The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else. As he explains there, the problem for the global poor isn’t too much freedom and capitalism; it’s too little. This lack, he argues, is what has held the poor back in so many parts of the developing world. Where the poor have gotten property rights, the rule of law, and access to wider circles of productivity and exchange, they’ve taken off economically. Berry seems oblivious of all this.
[Part 10 is here.]
Hernando de Soto takes up the question that, more than any other, is central to one of the most crucial problems the world faces today: Why do some countries succeed at capitalism while others fail?