I enjoyed Mark Winchell’s “Tracts Against Capitalism” (Vital Signs, January) when it presented facts regarding the Agrarians, but I must take issue with a number of his opinions.

Peaceful Valley residents have more than two options regarding Wal-Mart.  They could, for example, form a corporation (non-profit or otherwise) to buy the land in question, or they could raise a ruckus with the zoning authority either to block the project outright or to impose costly restrictions that would render it uneconomical.  The former course is principled and conservative, the latter is just another way for government to steal the landowner’s rights without paying just compensation.

Setting up mean old Wal-Mart as a foil to introduce a conservative “counter-tradition” to bigness is highly unenlightening, to put it mildly.  Whether it is Wal-Mart or a neighbor who wants to build on any particular lot, the property in question is going to be developed someday.  For Peaceful Valley residents to declare that they have got their little bit of heaven—and to hell with the rest—is not admirable; it is typical Malibu I’ve-got-mine liberalism.  Is that what the Agrarians stood for?  

People have loved to hate big business for 200 years, and look at the result: The big railroads of the 19th century are anemic behemoths struggling for life; big steel of the early 20th century went bust; big auto manufacturers of the 1950’s face stiff competition and are losing money; and the big computer companies of the 1970’s have been swamped by innovation.  

The problem with bigness is that it does not adjust well to change, and that is the point: No matter how big, no corporate entity is a match for the forces of the market.  To suggest that we need to cede more power to big government to battle today’s corporate giants seems manifestly wrong.  Rather than worry about Wal-Mart coming through the trees, the residents of every Peaceful Valley in America should worry about big government bashing down the door and looting the cupboard.    

I agree with Mr. Winchell that bigness is bad and devolution is good.  The solution to bigness, however, is not any sort of government action; it is more freedom.  While freedom may disrupt Kathleen Dickel’s breakfast, it is the only sure way we can achieve and keep meaningful devolution.  At least that’s what Thomas Jefferson thought.

        —Theodore B. Hannon
Kailua, Hawaii

Mr. Winchell Replies:

I fear that Mr. Hannon’s reading of my article is filled with enough straw men to populate Kansas.  As a card-carrying, dues-paying member of the Libertarian Party, I share his concern about “big government bashing down the door and looting the cupboard.”  In fact, I clearly stated that the biggest mistake made by the Agrarians and Distributists was to think that they could trust the federal government to fight their battles without paying an unacceptable price in personal freedom and local sovereignty.

What is at issue in Clemson is not whether property rights should be respected but whose property rights should prevail.  Why should the right of a single property owner to turn a profit by selling his land to Wal-Mart take precedence over the right of his neighbors to use their property in accordance with existing
zoning laws?  Chicago attorney Richard Kuntz has called my attention to the common law of nuisance.  This principle prohibits an offensive land use that would interfere with the “quiet enjoyment” of an established landowner.  Although this principle has been considerably eroded since the Industrial Revolution, it is one that conservatives can and should defend.

One need not harbor an irrational prejudice against big business to realize that capitalists are not gods but fallen human beings capable of bad behavior.  When they do act badly, it is incumbent upon defenders of the market to call them to task.

While I agree that federal regulation has gotten out of hand, the right of local communities to preserve an established way of life is a principle worth defending.  On this point, the Agrarians and Distributists are more reliably conservative than the Business Round Table.