It’s a commonplace to observe that modern folk are largely ignorant of history. On my more cynical days I suspect that this is not merely because the past is viewed with disdain, but also because there is something intimidating to us moderns about the competence and fortitute of our ancestors. I read about a man like Pa Ingalls, and I ask myself in astonishment: How did was this ordinary man able to move his family across the country in a wagon, pick a spot to settle, build a cabin, dig a well, plant and raise a crop, hunt for game, negotiate with Indians, and do the myriad other things necessary to provide for his family in such isolation? I hardly know who to call to have those things done for me!
And this, perhaps, is the heart of the problem. In so many areas we have given up any notion that we should be able to do things for ourselves, and decided that it is the better thing to have them done for us. In fact, the modern objective is to do nothing except that one thing that is so lucrative for us that we will be able to hire every other thing done.
Historically we have gone from doing the work for ourselves, to being able to do the work but choosing to hire it done, to being unable to do the work and thereby at the mercy of those who must do it for us.
We used to take care of our family’s health, and to do so we had to be knowledgeable about a wide range of ills and the home remedies that were available to treat them. Then we began to accept the assistance of health care experts, even taking their word for it where their practices were contrary to tradition. And now we know nothing about health matters except that we have a right to good health, however the experts define it for us, along with the right to have others foot the bill for it.
We used to grow and prepare food to feed our family, and to do so we had to be knowledgeable about how to raise a crop and store the fruits of it and process it in healthy and appetizing ways. Then we began to accept the assistance of people who were glad to grow food for us, store it us, even prepare it for us, even taking their word for it that cosmetics and year-round availability were far more important than nutritional value and absence of artificial fertilizers and pesticides. And now we know nothing about food except that we can’t seem to get enough of it to satisfy our cravings, and we don’t seem to be as healthy or strong as our ancestors were.
We used to teach our children at home, and as a result we had to have an understanding of the world around us and convictions about how life was to be lived so that we could pass them on to our children. Then we began to accept the assistance of people who assured us that a battery of trained experts could do a much more efficient and effective job of teaching them, while we would be free to concentrate our energies on more important things. (More important things!) And now we know nothing about how or what our children are taught except that they are being shaped by others to meet society’s standards so that they will be able to make their own way in today’s world, while we will be free to concentrate our energies on … more important things, I suppose.
We used to care for the elder members of our family ourselves, and to do so we had to create a household which had a place for the old as well as the young and very young, one which had the resources to provide for the needs of those who had become less materially productive, and the good sense to avail itself of the wisdom of those who had accumulated it over the years. Then we began to accept the assistance of people who assured us that such a burden was intolerable for a family and was better turned over to society at large, who could warehouse such folks much more cost-effectively. And now our homes are places that have no place for the very old or the very young, and rather than taking joy and comfort in their presence—along with the sense of security that comes from knowing they will do the same for us, someday—we yearn for the time when the state will take them off our hands.
As we sort through this series of wrong turns and think about what we might do to get back on the proper path, we should also ask ourselves why we ever took these wrong turns in the first place. Sometimes we can point to external pressures—a changing economy forced us into it, we were told lies about the benefits and drawbacks, everyone else seemed to think it was a good idea. But there does seem to be a common thread tying together our propensity to make bad choices: we are too willing, even eager, to turn over our responsibilities to others.
This can be clearly seen in the current trend toward outsourcing, paying others to shoulder our myriad responsibilities while pouring our energies into just one thing. Wendell Berry has observed that while our predecessors were generally knowledgeable and competent, modern man has reduced himself to the point where he knows one and only one thing—how to make money. And since money is the wrong tool for addressing the important issues that crop up in our lives, we find ourselves helpless in the face of undesirable circumstances. We mindlessly do what we are told by doctors and lawyers and insurance companies politicians and corporations, because we are not capable of walking a different path, or even conceiving of one.
Although the things that can be done to escape this morass are simple, they are often exceptionally difficult to practice. For example, as we turned to insurance companies and the government to protect our health, our lives, and our property, the community ties that once provided that protection were no longer needed and as a result faded away. As we stopped paying for medical treatment and property damage directly, we lost our sense of what these things are worth and began to demand as our due whatever the system would pay. And as third parties took on the job of paying for these services, prices began to spiral upwards. The simple solution here is to return to the earlier approach, foregoing insurance and paying for these services as we need them. But the changes that accompanied the rise of insurance make that very difficult.
Two problems here need to be dealt with. The first one, our entitlement mindset, is one we can each set about to change. We can look for areas where we have come to expect others to share or even completely shoulder our burdens, and we can start in on taking those responsibilities back. This might begin with a commitment to avoid unneeded visits to the doctor, followed by a long-term effort to learn how to diagnose and treat illnesses without the help of one, accompanied by a determination to not take at face value what purported wisdom the medical establishment wants to sell us. Such work will not be easy, but at least it is largely within our individual control, something we can set out to accomplish through our own efforts.
The second problem, possibly an intractable one, is that the structure of modern society caters to the entitlement mindset; in fact, large parts of the economy would cease to exist if people began to reclaim their responsibilities, and so society erects many barriers to keep people from doing so. Sometimes the barrier comes from the community, as when opting out of a universally available social service such as public schooling leads to social pressure from family, acquaintances, and even congregations, as well as harassment by the authorities. Sometimes the barrier is legal, as when government “health” regulations prevent you from selling food such as home-grown chicken or milk directly to a willing buyer. And often the barrier is structural, as when the absence of a supportive community prevents us from following a path because individually we can’t afford the risk.
These barriers are real, and they can seriously hinder our efforts to pursue an agrarian life. We can sigh over how much easier our job would be if these barriers were lowered, and we can even devote some of our efforts
to lowering those barriers so that our path to the agrarian life might be made more straight and level. But I think we need to resist the temptation to make it our goal to lower those barriers. We do not become more agrarian by lobbying for legislation that permits us to grow and sell food as we see fit, but by actually growing and selling food. We do not become more agrarian by formulating theories about agrarian economics, by teaching others how to live an agrarian life, by nurturing an agrarian movement, by working to pass agrarian-friendly laws, but only by living such a life ourselves.
None of these things are necessarily a hindrance for living an agrarian life, but neither are they a substitute for it. We must focus on the work which God has put within our scope, leaving it to Him to decide whether external barriers should be lowered so as to aid our progress—or left in place so as to aid our sanctification.