For most of history, people had no choice but to supply their own needs directly—to grow the food they ate, make the clothes they wore, build the homes that sheltered them. Money was scarce, and largely irrelevant to everyday life. But since the rise of industrialism it has become a rare thing to supply your own needs directly, and rare is the person who is capable of doing so. Of the rest of us, a few are capitalists, but the majority by far are wage laborers, dependent on exchanging our time and effort for the money we need to purchase the goods that supply our needs.
It’s galling to admit that Karl Marx had something right, but his idea of alienated labor points right at a fundamental transition from agrarianism to industrialism. What Marx meant was that industrialism takes something that was once an intimate part of a man, namely his labor, and turns it into a commodity that can be bought and sold on the open market.
A farmer does not sell his labor but the fruits of his labor, and as such is able to retain many of the benefits of his labor for himself—land he has improved, tools he has made, skills he has developed, along with the fruits he chooses not to sell. But a wage laborer can only sell his labor, which is mixed with materials he does not own to create fruits which he does not own; the benefits of his labor accrue to his employer, not to him.
It wasn’t just Karl Marx who saw this; seventeenth and eighteenth century Englishmen were well aware of the lack of liberty and security that wage labor entailed, since so much of the population had been forced into that position and suffered as a result. Many had left England and come to America precisely to escape the bondage of wage labor. Captain John Smith wrote that it was his passionate belief that in the New World “every man may be master and owner of his own labour and land, or the greatest part in a small time.”
But nineteenth century American industrialists needed hired hands to turn the cranks in their factories—Henry Ford is said to have complained about having to hire the whole man when all he needed was his hands—and so an independent, self-sufficient agrarian population had to be persuaded to change its ways. Unlike in seventeenth century England, where the authorities were able to populate the cities with wage laborers by forcing peasants off the land, American yeoman farmers had to be coaxed out of their self-sufficient circumstances using other means.
The story is told of an industrialist who came to an agrarian village, built a factory, and invited the villagers to come make things for him in exchange for a wage. The villagers showed up the first day, worked hard at making things, took their daily wage, and went home. On the second day, no one showed up; it seems that the villagers had little need for money and now had more than enough for a long while. The industrialist was stymied, but only briefly. Soon enough he arranged for every villager to receive a mail-order catalog, and he never wanted for laborers again. No doubt the story is apocryphal, but it points up the human weakness that industrialists so successfully played on: our lust for material goods, once inflamed, is insatiable and must be constantly fed.
One of the saddest themes running through the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder is the growing dependence of the Ingalls family on purchased goods. For the most part Pa Ingalls celebrates the changes that have led them to substitute ‘boughten’ things and services for what they once produced or did for themselves (either that, or went without). Only once does he question this progress, during The Long Winter, when he notes that as good as a coal fire is, it has put them at the mercy of the railroad which transports coal from far away.
Modernity works hard to persuade us that wage labor is an improvement, that the man who can turn his labor directly into money is as free or even freer than the man who must use that labor to produce and then sell those goods in an uncertain market. In fact we are encouraged to concentrate on converting our labor into money as efficiently as possible, pouring all our energies into learning to do one lucrative thing very well while living the rest of our lives through the medium of money.
And we end up persuaded, because we fail to remember that there was a time when money played a very minor role in the lives of most families, who lived and worked on farms and supplied nearly all their own needs directly through the fruits of their labors, bartering or selling their surplus to cover the rest. As Ma Wilder argues fiercely at the end of Farmer Boy, it is the farmer who is truly free, beholden to no man, while the rest are bound by the need to please customers or employers.
The best single book on how Americans were lured away from farm life and into wage labor is Allan Carlson’s From Cottage to Work Station, recently republished as The Family in America: Searching for Social Harmony in the Industrial Age. Another good book is Alan Kulikoff’s From British Peasant to Colonial American Farmer, which argues that medieval British farmers had it good until changes in the law forced half of them into wage labor, and that the social structure that was created in the American colonies was an explicit attempt to recapture the goodness of medieval, pre-capitalist times.
The main reason we engage in wage labor is to obtain cash, and the main thing we use cash for is to obtain those things we don’t produce ourselves. But there are other ways to respond to our need for cash; here are three.
Supply your own needs directly. Every time we can make something ourselves that would otherwise cost us cash, we reduce our need for cash. This idea is scary if it is taken as an all-or-nothing proposition. We have come to need so many things that we have little or no idea how to produce any of them ourselves.
But there are many small things that can be done to change this: grow, prepare, or preserve some of your own food; make some of your own clothing; collect some of your own heating fuel; fix or improve things around the house yourself; entertain yourself and your family.
Small, tentative steps in this direction may at first seem insignificant or futile, but they are the most important steps of all. Not because they make a significant dent in our need for cash, but because they will end up being the small victories that encourage us both to persevere and to take on ever greater challenges.
Rethink your needs. Every time we are able to forego something that would cost us cash, we reduce our need for cash. The process of sorting through and evaluating our “needs” is what is most often associated with the simple life, and it is an important part of living simply.
These days many of our needs are actually desires fueled by a consumer culture. We don’t need most of the things we spend money on, but we are assured by the sellers that we deserve them, that it is good and proper to feed that particular desire, that the costs are minimal and the benefits are great, that success and contentment hinge on having them. Society at large depends on us to spend large quantities of cash on consumables, and will tell us whatever lies are needed to keep us doing so.
As we develop an understanding of what it means to live simply, we can more easily ignore society’s guidelines for deciding what we need because we are equipped to make such decisions ourselves. Rather than, say, assuming that air conditioning is a blessing on the order of dental anesthesia, we can remind ourselves that air conditioning (particularly central air) was a rare thing until forty years ago, we can learn how our forbears designed their houses and scheduled their activities so as to deal with summer heat, we can count the full cost by studying the cost of obtaining and maintaining an
d operating the equipment, along with the problems that result from pumping chilled air throughout our houses. And we can consider our own frailty, being honest about the fact that after so many years of becoming accustomed to it, it may be very difficult to forego such a luxury without grumbling. Only after doing all these things are we able to count the true costs and benefits of air conditioning, and make an informed decision about whether to use it.
As with supplying our own needs directly, small and tentative steps towards eliminating unnecessary “needs” are the most important steps of all. Many of these matters are as deeply intertwined as the Gordian knot, and we have to resist the temptation to take a sword to them by making radical (and ultimately unsustainable) changes to our life on principle. Perhaps we would like to live very locally, even without a car, but merely selling our car doesn’t deal with all the dependencies that the car represents. Better to begin by committing to stay home as much as possible. Such a small move can make many other simplifications natural for us, even necessary—we spend less for fuel and maintenance, we buy fewer things than we did while out and about, we incur fewer obligations to be somewhere or do something, we spend more of our time with neighbors, we free up the time we spent running around to use in other ways. And as we become content living a life that is less dependent on having a car, we move closer to the possibility of doing without one.
A popular slogan among advocates of simplicity is “Use it up or wear it out, make do or do without.” There is the danger of turning this sort of frugality into piety, of course. But kept in proper perspective, this trite slogan points directly to both good stewardship and contentment, both essential elements of a godly life.
Produce a surplus and sell it. Although there are many ways to reduce our need for cash, it is difficult and probably undesirable to eliminate it completely. Taxes will always require cash. And there is nothing wrong with buying some of the things you need, only with being dependent on doing so.
Occasional wage labor is one possible way of earning cash, but the drawbacks are significant; as Marxists are fond of pointing out, it is your employer who ends up with the ongoing benefits of what your labor produces. Better to be in the business of earning cash by selling things you have produced yourself; not only will you end up with more of the cash exchanged, but you will also build and retain many side benefits—tools, skills, customer relationships.
It is easier to make more of what you’re already making than to start making a new thing from scratch. The things you make for yourself also make the best products—you understand them better, you take extra care to produce them, you know that these things are truly useful, you can speak to customers about them with a special enthusiasm. Since you already produce a wide variety of things to meet your own varied needs, selling from your surplus puts you in a position to test the local market for a wide variety of products. And selling the surplus of a wide variety of products will insulate you from fluctuations in demand for any particular product.