Reading update

A few days back I finished Why Cows Learn Dutch by Randy James, a county extension agent in Geauga County, Ohio, who has worked with the largely Amish community there for over twenty years. Each chapter uses a visit to an Amish farmer as a framing device, and goes on to look at a particular aspect of Amish farming—dairying, cutting hay, maple sugaring, running a farmstand. James has a light and friendly touch in his writing, but doesn’t shy away from dwelling on the technical and economic details of his subject, which made the book delightful and informative for me but could easily cause the casual reader’s eyes to glaze over. The most interesting chapter to me was the last one. where James helps a young Amish man figure out whether it makes economic sense to buy his father’s farm; I learned a lot about the complexities of agrarian economics, and it tied together nicely the material from earlier chapters.

Just this evening I finished By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Whenever I get bogged down in my agrarian reading project I take a day or two to read another volume in the Little House series, and it refreshes me. I expect that the best of the series is behind me, but it is still a good story and I enjoy watching for subtle clues as to how the characters think and how the social landscape is changing. I’m disappointed but not surprised to see how the Ingalls family continues to be distracted by modern-day thinking: Ma wants to stay near a town so that her girls can get an education; Pa wants to move west to where the game is plentiful—and picks a spot where the new town being built nearby has chased all the game away. And all the main characters—Pa, Ma, Mary, Laura—continue to develop interesting and quirky character flaws, a reminder that this is not a carefully plotted morality tale but just a faithful account of one family’s life.

I have a couple of mostly-finished books I need to get back to. One is Hilaire Belloc’s The Servile State, whose significance goes far beyond the scope of my reading project; it’s excellent, but unfortunately the questions it answers for me have already been answered in the other two Belloc books. Belloc’s bigger thesis here is that there are really only two stable economic systems—widely distributed ownership of small property, or the slave state. Capitalism, he claims, is a highly unstable arrangement that has to resolve itself in either distributism or slavery, and since distributism is so unlikely he claims that the resurgence of the slave state is inevitable. I haven’t studied it closely enough to know whether by Belloc’s standards we are now living in a slave state, or whether it is still impending, or whether he was just wrong.

The other mostly-finished book is Scott Mooney’s Usury: Destroyer of Nations. The book is very good, although sometimes overwhelming in the detail of its argument. I’m definitely persuaded that usury in any form is not only ungodly but a very destructive force when it enters a community; I’m less sure how we take that truth and live by it in a society that has made usury such an intricate and pervasive thing, touching all aspects of our modern lives. I do have one question for Mr. Mooney that I haven’t found answered in the book: does the definition of usury encompass “sleeping partnerships,” i.e. investing only money in exchange for a portion of the profits (and losses)?

Right now I’m focused on Flee to the Fields: Founding Papers of the Catholic Land Movement. As I read the Distributists and their colleagues, I’m surprised and a little embarrassed to learn that many of my questions about agrarianism were carefully considered and answered a century ago by this collection of Roman Catholic thinkers. Worse, they make a strong case that the disastrous shift from agrarianism to industrialism was largely due to certain problematic ideas introduced by the Reformation. 

I’m embarrassed that my theological differences with the Roman Catholics kept me for so long from looking at their social teachings for answers. But what I’ve read recently makes me think that these folks have an understanding of community that far surpasses that I’ve found in any Protestant writings, and rivals that of the Amish in its usefulness as a diagnostic of the benefits and dangers of social and technological innovation. So I’m trying to put aside my qualms about Romish theology and study carefully what they have to say about agrarian community. The next step, I think, is to read through two (gulp) papal encyclicals, Rerum Novarum by Pope Leo XIII (sometimes called “On the Condition of the Working Classes”) and Quadragesimo Anno by Pope Piux XI (sometimes called “On Reconstruction of the Social Order”), both of which are considered fundamental by the Catholic agrarian movement.

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2 thoughts on “Reading update

  1. Have you read Dorothy Day’s autobiography yet? I finished it recently. Sometimes it seems like she lived in constant chaos, but there are some interesting details about how her group tried to implement distributivism. I wonder what ever happened to all the “hospitality houses” she founded? Or better yet, the farms? She did not usually work within a family structure, however, and that would make a difference in her project and your interest.

  2. The laws concerning usury were a much simpler thing in an Ancient agrarian economy. Even the limited development of the Medieval economy provided for tricks and complications, such as the “repurchase agreement.” I agree that the Modern money economy only further complicates the issues; and I agree further that I might have discussed these things in greater depth. What determines whether the “sleeping partner” is an investor or a lender? This can only be determined by the nature of the contract. If he is guaranteed a return, then he is a lender. If his money bought him only a share in the enterprise, then he is an investor.

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