My Stateless Neighbors: The Amish

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My new home of western Maryland is a marked study in contrasts. Maryland, as readers of this page already know, is considered to be a "progressive" state, a one-party entity (Democratic) in which the legislature can be counted upon at least once a year to pass yet another "tough new law" that further restricts our freedoms. Whether it be inane gun trigger locks, the "click it or ticket" seatbelt statute, or "in our state, it is 0.8" (blood-alcohol levels for driving), one can count on the Maryland House of Delegates to let residents of the state know who is in charge around here.

My northern neighbor, Pennsylvania, is a little better but not much more so. Both states have revenue-hungry governments that are always in search of new ways to pick someone’s pockets, and there are constant reminders that Big Brother exists ostensibly to protect us from ourselves. However, there is at least one group of people who manage to live what in essence is a stateless existence: the Amish.

While Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, is best known for its Amish contingent, an ultra-conservative Mennonite sect that eschews modern conveniences like electricity and automobiles, they also populate the westernmost county in Maryland as well as other Pennsylvania counties located on the Allegheny Plateau. Those of us who live nearby must always look out for their black buggies when we are driving on roads in those areas.

While there is inevitable mingling of the Amish and their "English" neighbors (as they like to call us), this is a group of people who as much as possible keep to their own. I certainly do not classify them as unfriendly; indeed, I enjoy visiting with them whenever I shop at a salvage store owned and operated by an Amish family.

There is much to admire about the Amish, even though few of us would wish to join their sect. While I may not worship at the shrine of modern conveniences, I would also be loath to give them up for a house with no electricity and a horse and buggy for transportation. (The Amish are also practical, as they own and use tractors and other mechanized equipment, including gas-powered weed eaters.)

Although one can debate the merits of living a quasi-nineteenth century existence, I would like to look at one aspect of the Amish, that being their relative statelessness. Yes, they obey the laws of their states, but there are exceptions. The Amish do not pay social security taxes, and their children are educated only up to eighth grade, usually in private Amish schools. (Most likely, they are better educated leaving school after grade eight than many of their counterparts who slog through 12 years or more in government schools.)

They had to fight hard to win those exceptions, but when the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972 ruled that the State of Wisconsin could not force Amish students to go beyond eighth grade, that provided at least some cushion between them and government. Furthermore, the Amish are pacifists, which means they do not serve in the U.S. Armed Forces, nor can they be conscripted into service.

Amish do not vote, which means that when one drives in their areas at election times, there are no ridiculous candidate signs in their yards. (No, they do not place political bumper stickers on their horse-drawn buggies. The only things they have are the state-required orange triangles in the rear.)

In fact, Amish do not talk politics at all. None of my many conversations with them and their youngsters have been about politics or political personalities. Instead, we speak of family and things we consider to be important. To be frank, I would rather converse with the Amish I have met than with many of the pseudo intellectuals who seem to dominate media conversation these days. They might not be aware of the state of French Marxism or the latest self-important inanities from Sen. John McCain, but then I don’t much care what European communists and American statists have to say either.

A myth that permeates our society today is the falsehood that "responsible citizenship" requires that one vote in elections and keep abreast of political news. I know of no more responsible people than the Amish, and no people who are less politicized. That does not mean they do not stand up for their rights; a very conservative Amish sect in nearby Cambria County, Pennsylvania, has unsuccessfully fought to have a gray buggy triangle instead of the orange one the state requires. As noted earlier, they have also used the courts to establish their own educational practices and the ability to stay out of the social security system. In other words, they use the political system, but only to secure their rights, not to engage in wealth transfers and other shenanigans that characterize the modern American state.

There are those who believe that the Amish should be more subject to the state than they are. No doubt, many educational bureaucrats and state social workers would relish the thought of taking Amish children from their homes in order that they may be "exposed" to wonderful things like AIDS "education" in government schools, D.A.R.E., and MTV.

One of the myths of the Amish is that they have "made socialism work." While their strict Anabaptist version of Christianity is communitarian in nature, that does not make them socialists. First, Amish own their own property and businesses and are expected to work hard to make a living. Second, theirs is a religious, not socialistic community. Families are expected to care for others when there is genuine need.

However, people within the sect who do not work or are less than diligent and honest in their dealings with others cannot expect the kind of welfare state "compassion" from their brethren that is available through government. Christian community, in the view of the Amish, is something in which individuals are expected to contribute to the well being of others.

Furthermore, the Amish community is a voluntary society. Each child, when he or she grows up, is given the choice of staying Amish or leaving to live among the "English." Most people stay, but some do leave and go onto other pursuits.

Whenever I see an Amish horse and buggy or see them working in their fields and gardens, I am reminded that it is possible for individuals to live their lives without the "help" of the state. In this age of limitless government, it is good to see at least some people actually practicing a useful form of political anarchy.

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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