Let us tilt against the windmills

From Wendell Berry’s essay Discipline and Hope:

The outcry in the face of such obvious truths is that if they were implemented they would ruin the economy.  The peculiarity of our condition would appear to be that implementation of any truth would ruin the economy. If the Golden Rule were generally observed among us, the economy would not last a week.  We have made our false economy a false god, and it has made blasphemy of the truth.  So I have met the economy in the road, and am expected to yield it right of way.  But I will not get over.  My reason is that I am a man, and have a better right to the ground than the economy.  The economy is no god for me, for I have had too close a look at its wheels.  I have seen it at work in the strip mines and coal camps of Kentucky, and I know that it has no moral limits.  It has emptied the country of the independent and the proud, and has crowded the cities with the dependent and the abject.  It has always sacrificed the small to the large, the personal to the impersonal, the good to the cheap.  It has ridden questionable triumphs over the bodies of small farmers and tradesmen and craftsmen.  I see it, still, driving my neighbors off their farms into the factories.  I see it teaching my students to give themselves a price before they can give themselves a value.  Its principle is to waste and destroy the living substance of the world and the birthright of posterity for a monetary profit that is the most flimsy and useless of human artifacts.

Though I can see no way to defend the economy, I recognize the need to be concerned about the suffering that would be produced by its failure.  But I ask if it is necessary for it to fail in order for it to change; I am assuming that if it does not change it must sooner or later fail, and that a great deal that is more valuable will fail with it.  As a deity the economy is a sort of egotistical French monarch, for it can apparently see no alternative to itself except chaos, and perhaps that is its chief weakness.  For, of course, chaos is not the only alternative to it.  A better alternative is a better economy.    But we will not conceive the possibility of a better economy, and therefore will not begin to change, until we quit deifying the present one.

A better economy, to my way of thinking, would be one that would place its emphasis not upon the quantity of notions and luxuries, but upon the quality of necessities.  Such an economy would for example, produce an automobile that would last at least as long, and be at least as easy to maintain, as a horse.  It would encourage workmanship to be as durable as its materials; thus a piece of furniture would have the durability not of glue, but of wood.  It would substitute for the pleasure of frivolity a pleasure in the high quality of essential work, in the use of good tools, in a healthful and productive countryside.  It will encourage a migration from the cities back to the farms, to assure a work force that would be sufficient, not only to production of the necessary quantities of food, but to production of food of the best quality and to the maintenance of the land at the highest fertility–work that would require a great deal more personal attention and care and hand labor than the present technological agriculture that is focused so exclusively on production.  Such a change in the economy would not involve large-scale unemployment, but rather large-scale changes and shifts of employment.

“You are tilting at windmills,” I will be told.  “It is a hard world, hostile to the values that you stand for.  You will never enlist enough people to bring about such a change.”  People who talk that way are eager to despair, knowing how easy despair is.  The change I am talking about appeals to me precisely because it need not wait upon “other people.”  Anybody who wants to do so can begin it in himself and in his household as soon as he is ready–by becoming answerable to at least some of his own needs, by acquiring skills and tools, by learning what his real needs are, by refusing the glamorous and the frivolous.  When a person learns to act on his best hopes he enfranchises and validates them as no government or public policy ever will.  And by his action the possibility that other people will do the same is made a likelihood.

But I must concede that there is also a sense in which I am tilting at windmills.  While we have been preoccupied by various ideological menaces, we have been invaded and nearly overrun by windmills.  They are drawing the nourishment from our soil and the lifeblood out of our veins.  Let us tilt against the windmills.  Though we have not conquered them, if we do not keep going at them they will surely conquer us.


The going assumption seems to be that freedom can be granted only by an institution, that it is the gift of the government to its people.  I think it is the other way around.  Free men are not set free by their government; they have set their government free of themselves; they have made it unnecessary.  Freedom is not accomplished by a declaration.  A declaration of freedom is either a futile and empty gesture, or it is the statement of a finished fact.  Freedom is a personal matter; though we may be enslaved as a group, we can be free only as persons.  We can set each other free only as persons.  It is a matter of discipline.  A person can free himself of bondage that has been imposed on him only by accepting another bondage that he has chosen.  A man who would not be the slave of other men must be the master of himself–that is the real meaning of self government.  If we all behaved as honorably and honestly and industriously as we expect our representatives to behave, we would soon put the government out of work.

A person dependent on somebody else for everything from potatoes to opinions may declare that he is a free man, and his government may issue a certificate granting him his freedom, but he will not be free.  He is that variety of specialist known as a consumer, which means that he is the abject dependent of producers.  How can he be free if he can do nothing for himself?  What is the First Amendment to him whose mouth is stuck to the tit of the “affluent society?”  Men are free precisely to the extent that they are equal to their own needs.  The most able are the most free.

Love Wins