From time to time I like to examine professions that one would not automatically think of as being similar and their relationships . At other times I examine some of the larger repercussions of the politics of the American founding , and today I have the chance to do both of these. Earlier today I was listening to a Great Course (review forthcoming) on the way to work and the professor was talking about the debate between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson concerning the proper road to economic independence. In one of the many ironies of his life, the debt-ridden plantation owner argued for agrarian self-sufficiency (for everyone else, apparently, and not for himself), while less hypocritically the cosmopolitan New Yorker argued for economic independence for the United States through the cultivation of industry. The nostalgic appeal of Jefferson’s view aside, Hamilton’s approach appears to have been the more popular one in recent decades.
Yet it is not difficult to see that viewing the desirability of economic independence as a matter of Jefferson vs. Hamilton is, as is so often the case, a false dilemma. On the one hand, a nation cannot maintain economic independence without a firm grasp of logistics, including the need to feed oneself, which can be very vulnerable when trade lines can be interdicted. The starvation of republics like Athens, Novgorod, and the Confederacy demonstrates that when one’s essential goods must come through trade, one’s freedom can be lost when that trade is cut off by an adversary. A nation cannot be free unless its belly can be filled by its own efforts. Likewise, a nation cannot be economically independent without paying attention to commerce, not least because raw material prices are highly dependent on the economies of more advanced nations, and because depending on being a raw materials supplier is to make one a dependent when it comes to matters of economics. As is often the case, a commitment to independence requires the development of both agriculture on the one hand and industry and commerce on the other.
In order to see how this may effectively be done, let us leave the world of geopolitics and enter a much smaller world, that of the rural areas where agrarian and commercial types interact with each other. On the one hand, we have a group of family farms operating near each other. Perhaps they are cotton farms in Texas, or raisin farms growing Thompson seedless grapes in California, or perhaps they are dairy farms in Western Pennsylvania. The general pattern would be the same regardless of the particulars. On the other hand, we have the businesses that bring that food to the market and those local businesses like farm supply stores that deal with the farmers directly. The farmers interact with the larger markets through various intermediaries–most of whom make far more money than the farmers themselves–and their purchases at the farm supply store serve as a signal as to how the farmers themselves are doing. Assuming that all parties involved are at least ethical in their practices, the two groups of people have a symbiotic relationship, in that the well-being of any party involves the well-being of the other parties involved as well. Agrarians prosper when their crops earn them enough money to live honorably, and so doing provides an honest living to those who bring their goods from farm to table, as well as those who sell farmers what is necessary for operating a farm.
In such a relationship, there are people who have the local knowledge necessary to communicate what is going on to the wider world. The farmers are on ground zero, so to speak, of any environmental conditions that threaten a crop, and their lack of a good crop can be quickly communicated to those who are transporting it and selling it as well as to those who sell seed and tractor parts and other necessary components of farming. A prolonged period of downturn within a farming area threatens the ability of companies to serve as honest middlemen and it threatens the survival not only of family farms but also those small local businesses that supply farmers with what is necessary for them to operate. While a nation can certainly survive for a time without the well-being of a local population of small farmers, the need to import one’s food from outside is a vulnerability that will be tested in war and that will endanger the well-being of republican government and republican virtue. Jefferson was certainly right that the virtue provided by small farmers was important in preserving the freedom and well-being of a nation, and Hamilton was right that commerce and industry were necessary to preserve a nation’s freedom and well-being.
Yet it is not hard to see how these two can be complementary rather than antagonistic. City folk as well as country folk can appreciate good food grown well by local farmers. Likewise, country folk can certainly appreciate the skills that preserve economic well-being and that allow all to benefit from the produce of the land. We can best see the complementary nature of both men’s visions for a better America when we think of what qualities entrepreneurs and small businesses on the one hand and family farms have on the other. In both cases, they are small and local and sensitive to the people around them. Local businesses and family farms cultivate long-term relationships with a small group of customers and suppliers, and their sensitivity to what goes on in the lives of these people allows them to communicate that caring. When either farms or companies get too big, the human element is often lost. The line between macroeconomics and microeconomics is the the line where individual exchanges and the communication and trust that provide a foundation for mutually beneficial operation is replaced by mere bean-counting and statistics.
And that line is truly relevant for us today. The freedom represented by small business owners and small farms (themselves small businesses, after all) is a freedom of a complex and multi-faceted kind. It is freedom from being a courtier to powerful political or corporate elements, and free to serve one’s true masters, one’s customers, something large businesses and overweening governments of all kinds often forget. It is freedom from the vulnerability of having trade routes cut by enemies, secure in the knowledge that a nation can feed itself and can construct that which is needful to survive and thrive without dependency on other nations. It is the freedom to disagree with popular delusions and cultures in a mad rush towards self-destruction such as we see with the United States and many other nations of the world. These are all freedoms worth defending, and all too often they are freedoms we simply do not understand or appreciate until it is too late to preserve them or recover them once more.
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