The GATT Trade talks in Europe collapsed and surprised advocates of the new international order. American officials tagged blame on the nations of Western Europe and Japan for their intransigent unwillingness to dismantle national farm programs sheltering indigenous rural communities. Our negotiators blasted the irrational protection of obsolete jobs and an incomprehensible subsidy to undercapitalized, inefficient industries seeking special privileges.
There is an alternate way, however, to view the same event: that the rest of the Western world refused to follow the United States in the willing sacrifice of its rural population to the shibboleth of efficiency; that other values were judged to have claims as well.
We Americans enjoy liberties originally won through the blood and character of an independent farming class. Industrialization made inevitable a contraction of the farm population as a share of the general population. Yet a peculiar American schizophrenia was also at work, with dark consequences. On the one hand, a stream of public rhetoric and (after 1932) federal programs has sought to save the family farm. On the other hand, a second stream of public rhetoric and (since the 1860’s) federal programs have subsidized intensive research designed to improve agricultural efficiency by substituting capital (machines, synthetic fertilizers, chemicals) for labor.
The net result was both the virtual destruction of the family farm as a culturally relevant factor in America and massive subsidies to the farm sector: the worst of both worlds. Today, our family farms have become primarily old age homes, except for those marginal farming sectors that have avoided government subsidies and heavy capitalization—groups such as the Amish. We spend 20 billion dollars annually on farm programs, yet the proportion of the American population residing on farms is lower than in smaller, more crowded nations such as France and Germany.
Western Europeans, like the Japanese, simply give greater credence to a vision that once guided the American agrarian republic: in the words of poet Wendell Berry, “that as many as possible should share in the ownership of the land and thus be bound to it by economic interest, by the investment of love and work, by family loyalty, by memory and tradition.”
In defending the French wheat farmer or the Japanese rice grower, national politicians pay at least in part an honest tribute to a cultural connection with the land, and a respect for husbandry, that appears to be incomprehensible to many American ideologues.
The relevant philosophical point is that an unencumbered market is not an absolute value in human affairs. Without question, it is the finest system for creating and delivering the highest quality goods at the lowest price. Healthy communities, though, always involve competing values as well. For example, a successful family does not operate on market principles. Indeed, it is the only pure collective that successfully operates on the socialist principle of “from each according to his ability; to each according to his need.” As Garrison Keillor once noted, small towns survive through a related form of restraint: you buy your new toaster at Ernie’s Dry Goods, although you could get it cheaper at the big city mall, because Ernie is your neighbor.
Europeans and the Japanese have placed a high national value on the preservation of a peasant agriculture, with concepts of family, soil, history, and national security intimately involved. In contrast, American policymakers have managed the near destruction of our independent yeoman class. Rather than excoriate our key trading partners, we might better focus on steps that might correct our own farm follies.
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