Saturday, February 14, 2009

amish way

Under a truly free order, the economic incentives bind the generations of a family tightly together. Each generation has a vested interested in the success of those going before, and those coming after. This takes form in the communal nature of family wealth, in security centered on family relations, and in retention by the family of the talents of progeny.

The modernist responds that such principles are no longer possible, given the complexities and demands of the contemporary economy.

To which I always reply with my favorite counter-cultural example: the old order Amish in America.

Amish society violates every modern rule. Relative to the industrial economy, they use true horsepower rather than tractors in the fields. They rely on horse and buggy for transport, rather than auto and truck. They make their own clothes, furniture, and candles. They avoid credit. They resist most uses of electricity and electronic devices. And they build and sell products using hand labor, dedicated to craftsmanship.

Relative to the state, the Amish are, at their request, exempt from Social Security and Medicare. They refuse welfare, relying instead on help from their neighbors and relatives in time of crisis. They keep their children out of state schools, operating their own schools through the eighth grade, after which children are to learn trades from their parents or neighbors. Indeed, the Amish shamelessly exploit child labor from age three on, and they maintain harshly segregated gender roles in all aspects of labor and life.

Living by such rules in 20th century America, the Amish should have disappeared long ago. Instead the Amish population has grown from 5,000 in 1900, found only in nearby Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, to 150,000 today, found in colonies in a dozen American states. To place this growth in context, it is important to remember that the overall U.S. farm population fell from 35 million to 2.5 million over these same years. Using even the modernist measure of mathematical success, I ask: Who succeeded here? and who failed?

Someone, though, will surely ask in shocked tones: Do you mean to imply that we should all become Amish?

Well, I can imagine worse fates for the world but that is not my message.

This is the lesson I draw from the Amish example: --we do not have to live as we do, in a regime of mounting family and social disorder. The modern economy and the modern state do not make inevitable only one pattern of life. Human beings can use the power of culture to build and maintain barriers that protect their families (and their family or household economies) from functional ruin, and still participate with success in the larger economy. It has happened on a broad scale in the recent America past; it is happening now among communities such as the Amish; and it can happen in the future.
--Allan Carlson

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