Down with (parts of) the past!

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[Comments accepted at original post on Mises.org]

I’m looking at the new issue of Chronicles, which features a happy kid using a plough pulled by some oxen, and behind him stands an old corner store but in the back of the supposedly idyllic scene is that dreadful menace Wal-Mart shown in black and white. Wal-Mart! Why, the store intends to take that kid from behind that plough and plunk him behind some counter pushing goods made in China, and thus does the world end.

You know, it just doesn’t do it for me. I would rather be in Wal-Mart than living on a farm pushing a plough, unless the setting were some fantasy vacation in which we live like our ancestors for a day or two before flying home. I would do this, so long as the farm had wireless. That’s probably true for nearly everyone. In fact, we can pretty much know this is true for everyone. How? Because wherever and whenever people are given the choice, they leave the farm for the town and the city, and drop their ploughs and pick up machinery. Given enough time and progress, the heaviest thing they lift is a computer mouse and weights at the private gym.

Why? Well, it seems that God that gave us rationality has also implanted human beings with a desire to improve their lot. If we are permitted the freedom to make choices, we choose better ways of getting what we want and need rather than worse ways. We would rather do what we do best rather than do what we must, which is why the division of labor leads to relentless improvements in our lives and in human flourishing for everyone.

Look, I love the past, by which I mean the time before our lifetimes. The past has wonderful architecture, literature, thinkers, music, artisanship, cultural traditions, romances, religions, rituals, and events. How tedious are people who want to reinvent all ideas starting now? A new religion is a false one, and always means some weirdo lording it over dupes. Same goes for a brand-new philosophy of life, math, geometry, and morality. You want to start the calendar at day one? Feel free but leave the rest of us out of it.

But you know what’s not so great about the past? The technology was rotten. Lifespans were short. Food was hard to come by. Dentistry was dreadful. Getting from here to there was a pain in the neck; you had to find or horse or hoof it. Medicine was more likely to kill you than help you, and I say that as the great grandson of a medic with a camp of men who fought in the civil war. He was a blacksmith in real life. That’s why they gave him the job of sawing off arms and legs and when they had to go.

Also, not that many people were even around in the past. In the year 1000, there were only 250 million people on the whole planet—smaller then the US population today. Some 900 years later, it had increased to 1.5 billion, which isn’t actually that much compared to what has happened since. There are now 6.5 billion people alive, which is just great, or so it seems to me, because that means more writers, inventors, artists, workers, bloggers, and everything else.

More people also implies less infant mortality, early death, and human suffering generally. Of course there are more mouths to feed, so thanks goodness for capitalism, which makes it all possible. Take that away and you remove the cause of the viability of the human population and force mass death and other unthinkable results.

In 1900, 40% of Americans worked on farms. Today it is only 3%. This is progress. It really is. What’s more, it represents the results of choice. No one was ever forced to leave a farm. They choose to leave to undertake more socially useful and economically profitable endeavors.

But what about the loss of values, culture, that sense of independence that comes with the agricultural way of life? In his lead editorial Thomas Fleming cites Thomas Jefferson: “cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedding to its liberty and interests…”

Well, it was an empirical fact. Generally speaking, there were two parties in those days, North and South, manufacturing and agricultural. The former were hooked into big government, mercantilism and inflationary finance, while the latter were all the things Jefferson describe. They were also the aristocracy with the deepest roots, and greatest love of radical liberty.

Is the insight valid for all time and all conditions, a matter of natural law rather than a descriptive point about the times? Of course not. Jefferson was no dummy. He was well read in the highest economic theory of his time. A bust of Turgot stands in his doorway of his home in Charlottesville today just as it did when he was alive.

In any case, whether and to what extent Jefferson was an agrarian is neither here nor there. Lots of people romanticize the past, have plots in their backyards, keep a compost pile, and growing veggies in the spring and summer. Ah, the agrarian life—made possible and made charming by existence of a vast capitalist infrastructure that sells seeds and dirt and fertilizer and tools at Home Depot, Lowes, and a hundred other dealers. The agrarian life is a good we purchase like any other. You are free to buy (with money and time) or not.

One funny point about self-conscious anachronisms: they can’t really decide where history should have stopped. In the same issue that feature Fleming regretting the fact that you are not pushing a plough has another writer bemoaning the loss of manufacturing jobs in Rockford, Illinois. Why? Maybe if we lose enough manufacturing jobs, everyone will have to go back to farming. What neither contributor sees is that both the loss of agricultural and manufacturing jobs represents progress in the march of the division of labor. It means the material advance of the human population.

It’s fine and great to love the eternal verities, be in awe of baroque churches, listen to the music of Josquin, master ancient poetry, recite poetry in Middle English. But that doesn’t mean you can’t use a cell phone, know Html, listen to a podcast, and spend your free time improving Wikipedia entries. We do not have to choose between modernism and antiquarian affections. Capitalism allows us to have it all.

2:30 pm on November 11, 2005
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