Economy, part 2

Following up on yesterday’s post about “the economy,” and at the risk of being (even more) tedious, here’s one of my very favorite passages from Wendell Berry. It is taken from his 1971 essay “Discipline and Hope.”  It will resonate with many of us.

Mr. Berry:

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.