Sunday, August 19, 2007

Fields Without Dreams

Book Review: Fields Without Dreams: Defending the Agrarian Ideal by Victor Davis Hanson, Free Press, 1997

Hanson's contention is that the small farm is dead and that capitalism killed it. For those who say, "So what," Hanson would answer that Greek democracy and Jeffersonian democracy all depend on the existence of small farms manned by trusty yeomen. Can we abandon the agrarian principles on which our country was founded and still maintain our country? Hanson says we cannot. Wendell Berry echoes the same thoughts in his book, Another Turn of the Crank.

The small farmer is not asking for government handouts, but he is asking for protection from large corporations and protection from unfair foreign trade. Why should the small farmer be protected? Hanson maintains that the small farmer should be protected because he is the heart and soul of the American democratic experiment. The small farmer is in a dilemma when it comes to politics. He is usually a conservative on issues such as pornography, divorce, and sexual permissiveness, but he has done better economically under Democratic regimes instead of Republican. Hanson addresses this dilemma:

Oh, it is true that most farmers now say they 'like' such Republican constriction, the hard dollar, low wages, predictable prices, stasis, and all that. I won't argue with farmers that skeptical Republican administrations may be smarter in dealing with drugs, welfare, the lazy and criminal, and other social ills. But raisin farmers, even conservative farmers, usually – predictably – go broke voting Republican, hating the rare Democratic administrations as they become prosperous. So much for homo economicus … Tell a farmer that: he almost punches you in the face, citing rains, luck, and all sorts of extraneous, superfluous factors for the Carter extravaganza of the late 1970s. He hates you for saying what he knows in his black heart to be true:
Democrats inflate and expand; Republicans deflate and constrict. Democrats enrage farmers with their farrago of entitlement and permissiveness; Republicans excite with their stern talk and get-tough threats. But Democrats make farmers rich; Republicans make them go broke.
Hanson makes his case against the unrestricted free market by describing the tragedy of his own small, ancestral farm. His mother, his father, and now he and his brothers have all had to get jobs outside the farm (Hanson works as a Professor of Greek) just to keep it alive. The great raisin crash (depicted in great detail in the book) of 1983 ended the last hope the Hansons had of making a living from their land. Nor does Hanson confine himself to just the story of his own farm. He tells the stories of many other small farmers who were unable to compete with the leviathan. To the Limbaughs who would call Hanson and his fellow farmers 'liberal whiners' who just couldn't cut it in a free-market economy, Hanson replies with this:

All the free-market economists I met who lectured on productivity while ignoring obscene commissions, dividends, and salaries, the Ivy League careerists who pontificated about market corrections and the stabilizing, healthy effect of buyouts, shutdowns, and bankruptcies, were themselves quite a sorry bunch. A pampered lot they were, terrified of the ghetto across the freeway, struck dumb by a hammer and nails, left pale and stammering before the formidable blue-collar white repair man. They preached an awfully stern Darwinism. But even those tanned and fit on their Nautilises would be the first to go in any jungle their own models might create.
No doubt because of a second career (Hanson considers himself a farmer first) spent with Aeschylus and Sophocles, Mr. Hanson does not feel obligated to end his work on an optimistic note. He makes a few suggestions about things that could be done, but he makes it clear that he doesn't believe anything will be done to help the small farmer. Like a soothsayer from one of Sophocles' tragedies, Hanson tells us, without commercial break, that there will be hell to pay for our destruction of the agrarian way of life.*

Now, let me mention the major flaw of the book. Hanson's critique of the free-market is just; his defense of the agrarian way of life is noble. However, I would quarrel with the gods he invokes. He states in his preface that he rejects the more romanticized vision of farming presented by Virgil in The Georgics in favor of the bleaker vision presented by Hesiod in Works and Days. Throughout the book, when he talks about 'Western Civilization' he clearly refers to the Greeks. Well, the Greeks were a fine bunch of fellows, and we owe them much, but the Incarnation is a fact. The Western monks preserved the Greek and Roman works because there was much in them that deserved to be preserved, but to ignore the colossal change in our institutions, in our art, and in our morals that took place since the Incarnation is at best second-rate thought. Agrarianism needs to be defended because it was under an agrarian economy that Christendom flourished, not because the Greeks (as Hanson suggests) flourished under an agrarian system. So, this is a good book, but not on a par with Andrew Lytle's Eden to Babylon, in which Lytle defends the agrarian idea from a Christian viewpoint.

*The poisoned food from China is part of the hell we are paying.