Even the Amish Fell for the Boom

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Living on the Allegheny Plateau in western Maryland, I am close to Pennsylvania and a large colony of Old-Order Amish. We purchase some of our groceries at a store run by an Amish family, and have done business with them at times.

Some years ago, I wrote a piece in praise of the Amish view of fighting in wars and how they conduct their affairs, mostly apart from the State. They don’t work for the government, and try to live their lives as far removed from the tangle of the state as one can do in this modern world.

Now, this alone hardly makes them virtuous. I don’t believe that having electricity or an automobile makes me a lesser person or less virtuous than someone who uses kerosene lanterns and rides in horse-drawn buggies. Nonetheless, I do think there is something compelling about the Old-Order Amish, and I will say that they are not the people who are encouraging rapacious behavior abroad by U.S. armed forces.

Nonetheless, it was not electricity or cars that corrupted the Amish; it was the easy-credit regime produced by Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke, who are quite removed from the horse-and-buggy world of that corner of the mountains of Pennsylvania. Hans Hoppe and others have warned that a regime of easy credit will lead to changes in human behavior that are destructive, as people begin to forsake planning for the future and replace it with a present-oriented lifestyle.

One might think that the more sedate Old-Order Amish would be exempt from such problems, but think again. In a recent article, the Wall Street Journal demonstrated how an Amish community in Indiana found itself caught up in the boom, and its attendant lifestyle corruption.

There were some things that we would not recognize (like newer buggies and higher-priced horses with a distinctive prance) and some we would (second homes, eating in expensive restaurants, and high-priced vacations). Writes the Journal:

By 2007, more than half of Amish men in these parts were working full time in manufacturing, and earning, on average, $30 an hour, says Steven Nolt, a professor at Goshen College in Goshen, Ind., who studies the community.

The great increase in discretionary income spawned a “keeping-up-with-the-Joneses mentality,” says Mervin Lehman, 39, an Amish father of four who says he was making more than $50-an-hour and working up to 60 hours a week as an RV plant supervisor before he was laid off in November.

As the boom progressed, the easy money began to cut into some aspects of the Amish lifestyle:

Some Amish bishops in Indiana weakened restrictions on the use of telephones. Fax machines became commonplace in Amish-owned businesses. Web sites marketing Amish furniture began to crop up. Although the sites were run by non-Amish third parties, they nevertheless intensified a feeling of competition, says Casper Hochstetler, a 70-year-old Amish bishop who lives in Shipshewana.

“People wanted bigger weddings, newer carriages,” Mr. Lehman says. “They were buying things they didn’t need.” Mr. Lehman spent several hundred dollars on a model-train and truck hobby, and about $4,000 on annual family vacations, he says. This year, there will be no vacation.

It became common practice for families to leave their carriages home and take taxis on shopping trips and to dinners out.

Unfortunately, the easy credit also undermined the sense of community that was part-and-parcel to the way they had lived for centuries. However, as the economy implodes and as economists like Paul Krugman continue to demand that the government try to continue the boom, it seems that the "correction" is hitting even the Amish:

In Indiana, a back-to-basics movement appears to be taking root. More patches of produce have sprouted behind Amish homes this summer. Restaurants are entertaining fewer Amish customers. Mr. Lehman says neighbors “are more considerate of each other now.”

Some men have started their own businesses close to home. Mr. Lehman makes mattresses in his workshop. Harlan Miller, a 34-year-old father of five who was laid off in February, started making fruit butter, which he sells at a local market. Freeman Miller (no relation), 54, who was laid off after 30 years in manufacturing, builds wooden caskets for pets.

Indeed, as the Amish are involved heavily in agriculture and financial guru Jim Rogers says that the future is in farming, just maybe the Amish will make a comeback. Thus, one can say that the downturn truly is a correction, even among these generally frugal people.

July 3, 2009

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. He also is a consultant with American Economic Services. Visit his blog.

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