A Modest Farmer [Bert Kelly], “So Fred and I hung up our haloes on a nail,” The Australian Financial Review, January 13, 1978, p. 3.
Reprinted in Economics Made Easy (Adelaide: Brolga Books, 1982), pp. 3-5, as “The Virtue of Farmers.”
Fred and I spend quite a lot of time admiring ourselves and each other.
Perhaps Fred doesn’t admire me as he should because I was once his member of Parliament, but still we regard ourselves with particular affection and respect because we are farmers.
This feeling of mutual admiration started years ago because people told us that farmers were the last bastions of moral virtue.
“There’s something so solid and noble about the sons of the soil,” people would claim.
“The rural community may not be as rich or as flashy as their city cousins but they are full of the virtues which the city folk lack.”
But I must admit that I used to look at Fred rather quizzically when I heard him described as a paragon of virtue.
Long and intimate association with him has made me well aware that he has as many, if not more, human frailties as the average citizen.
And I’m afraid that Fred, if provoked, could and would say even more about me. But nowadays moral virtue is not greatly regarded so our image has dimmed somewhat.
Then Fred and I used to acquire merit because we produced the export income on which everything used to depend.
One rainy days we used to spend many hours sitting in the smithy polishing our export income earners’ haloes.
Then along came Dr Gregory who pointed out that in the last 10 years, since the mineral expansion occurred, the production of even more export income caused the exchange rate to move in such a way as to discourage the production of other exports.
So the production of exports, though desirable, was not necessarily noble.
So Fred and I hung up our export income earners’ haloes on a nail and we next appeared as the defenders of things as they were.
“Others can chop and change, and run after each new idea, each new hare that’s put up by academics and other well-meaning people,” we explained, “but Fred and I are the repositories of the traditions of the past and because of this we deserve and must get, not only a special place in Heaven, but also a subsidy or two to keep us in the state to which people of our exceptional qualities are entitled.”
We arrived at this conclusion after a considerable mental effort and sank back exhausted and waited to be ushered into the place in Heaven reserved for people with our superior moral and economic virtues.
But then unfortunately I recalled that Professor Hayek had had something to say on this subject. So I went back to this source of uncomfortable wisdom and I quote from The Constitution of Liberty (University of Chicago Press, 1960), p. 364:
As in all other fields, if there is to be a continuous adaptation to changing circumstances in agriculture, it is essential that the example of those individuals who are successful because they have discovered the appropriate response to change be followed by the rest.
This always means that certain types will disappear.
In agriculture in particular, it means that the farmer or peasant, if he is to succeed, must progressively become a businessman — a necessary process that many people deplore and want to prevent.
But the alternative for the agricultural population would be to become more and more a sort of appendage to a national park, quaint folk preserved to people the scenery, and deliberately prevented from making the mental and technological adjustments that would enable them to be self-supporting.
Such attempts to preserve particular members of the agricultural population by sheltering them against the necessity of changing strong traditions and habits must turn them into permanent wards of government, pensioners living off the rest of the population, and lastingly dependent for their livelihood on political decisions.
It would certainly be the lesser evil if some remote homesteads disappeared and in some places pastures or even forests replaced what in different conditions had been arable land.
Indeed, we should be showing more respect for the dignity of man if we allowed certain ways of life to disappear altogether instead of preserving them as specimens of a past age.
What a nerve Hayek has to talk about Fred and me as being some sort of appendages to a national park!
Evidently he hasn’t heard about our self-evident virtues. Or mine, anyway. I am not quite so certain about Fred’s.
Bonus: Appendix for Economics.org.au readers:
From A Mencken Chrestomathy (New York: Vintage, 1982). pp. 360-64.
Let the farmer, so far as I am concerned, be damned forevermore. To Hell with him, and bad luck to him. He is a tedious fraud and ignoramus, a cheap rogue and hypocrite, the eternal Jack of the human pack. He deserves all that he ever suffers under our economic system, and more. Any city man, not insane, who sheds tears for him is shedding tears of the crocodile.
No more grasping, selfish and dishonest mammal, indeed, is known to students of the Anthropoidea. When the going is good for him he robs the rest of us up to the extreme limit of our endurance; when the going is bad he comes bawling for help out of the public till. Has anyone ever heard of a farmer making any sacrifice of his own interests, however slight, to the common good? Has anyone ever heard of a farmer practising or advocating any political idea that was not absolutely self-seeking — that was not, in fact, deliberately designed to loot the rest of us to his gain? Greenbackism, free silver, the government guarantee of prices, bonuses, all the complex fiscal imbecilities of the cow State John Baptists — these are the contributions of the virtuous husbandmen to American political theory. There has never been a time, in good seasons or bad, when his hands were not itching for more; there has never been a time when he was not ready to support any charlatan, however grotesque, who promised to get it for him. Only one issue ever fetches him, and that is the issue of his own profit. He must be promised something definite and valuable, to be paid to him alone, or he is off after some other mountebank. He simply cannot imagine himself as a citizen of a commonwealth, in duty bound to give as well as take; he can imagine himself only as getting all and giving nothing.
Yet we are asked to venerate this prehensile moron as the Ur-burgher, the citizen par excellence, the foundation-stone of the state! And why? Because he produces something that all of us must have — that we must get somehow on penalty of death. And how do we get it from him? By submitting helplessly to his unconscionable blackmailing by paying him, not under any rule of reason, but in proportion to his roguery and incompetence, and hence to the direness of our need. I doubt that the human race, as a whole, would submit to that sort of high-jacking, year in and year out, from any other necessary class of men. But the farmers carry it on incessantly, without challenge or reprisal, and the only thing that keeps them from reducing us, at intervals, to actual famine is their own imbecile knavery. They are all willing and eager to pillage us by starving us, but they can’t do it because they can’t resist attempts to swindle each other. Recall, for example, the case of the cottongrowers in the South. Back in the 1920s they agreed among themselves to cut down the cotton acreage in order to inflate the price — and instantly every party to the agreement began planting more cotton in order to profit by the abstinence of his neighbors. That abstinence being wholly imaginary, the price of cotton fell instead of going up — and then the entire pack of scoundrels began demanding assistance from the national treasury — in brief, began demanding that the rest of us indemnify them for the failure of their plot to blackmail us.
The same demand is made sempiternally by the wheat farmers of the Middle West. It is the theory of the zanies who perform at Washington that a grower of wheat devotes himself to that banal art in a philanthropic and patriotic spirit — that he plants and harvests his crop in order that the folks of the cities may not go without bread. It is the plain fact that he raises wheat because it takes less labor than any other crop — because it enables him, after working no more than sixty days a year, to loaf the rest of the twelve months. If wheat-raising could be taken out of the hands of such lazy fellahin and organized as the production of iron or cement is organized, the price might be reduced by two-thirds, and still leave a large profit for entrepreneurs. But what would become of the farmers? Well, what rational man gives a hoot? If wheat went to $10 a bushel tomorrow, and all the workmen of the cities became slaves in name as well as in fact, no farmer in this grand land of freedom would consent voluntarily to a reduction of as much as 1/8 of a cent a bushel. “The greatest wolves,” said E. W. Howe, a graduate of the farm, “are the farmers who bring produce to town to sell.” Wolves? Let us not insult Canis lupus. I move the substitution of Hyæna hyæna.
Meanwhile, how much truth is in the common theory that the husbandman is harassed and looted by our economic system, that the men of the cities prey upon him — specifically, that he is the chronic victim of such devices as the tariff, railroad regulation, and the banking system? So far as I can make out, there is none whatever. The net effect of our present banking system is that the money accumulated by the cities is used to finance the farmers, and that they employ it to blackmail the cities. As for the tariff, is it a fact that it damages the farmer, or benefits him? Let us turn for light to the worst tariff act ever heard of in human history: that of 1922. It put a duty of 30 cents a bushel on wheat, and so barred out Canadian wheat, and gave the American farmer a vast and unfair advantage. For months running the difference in the price of wheat on the two sides of the American-Canadian border — wheat raised on farms not a mile apart — ran from 25 to 30 cents a bushel. Danish butter was barred out by a duty of 8 cents a pound — and the American farmer pocketed the 8 cents. Potatoes carried a duty of 50 cents a hundredweight — and the potato-growers of Maine, eager to mop up, raised such an enormous crop that the market was glutted, and they went bankrupt, and began bawling out for government aid. High duties were put, too, upon meats, upon cheese, upon wool — in brief, upon practically everything that the farmer produced. But his profits were taken from him by even higher duties upon manufactured goods, and by high freight rates? Were they, indeed? There was, in fact, no duty at all upon many of the things he consumed. There was no duty, for example, upon shoes. The duty upon woolen goods gave a smaller advantage to the manufacturer than the duty on wool gave to the farmer. So with the duty on cotton goods. Automobiles were cheaper in the United States than anywhere else on earth. So were all agricultural implements. So were groceries. So were fertilizers.
But here I come to the brink of an abyss of statistics, and had better haul up. The enlightened reader is invited to investigate them for himself; they will bring him, I believe, some surprises. They by no means exhaust the case against the consecrated husbandman. I have said that the only political idea he can grasp is one which promises him a direct profit. It is, alas, not quite true: he can also grasp one which has the sole effect of annoying and damaging his enemy, the city man. The same mountebanks who get to Washington by promising to augment his gains and make good his losses devote whatever time is left over from that enterprise to saddling the rest of us with oppressive and idiotic laws, all hatched on the farm. There, where the cows low through the still night, and the jug of Peruna stands behind the stove, and bathing begins, as at Biarritz, with the vernal equinox — there is the reservoir of all the nonsensical legislation which makes the United States a buffoon among the great nations. It was among country Methodists, practitioners of a theology degraded almost to the level of voodooism, that Prohibition was invented, and it was by country Methodists, nine-tenths of them actual followers of the plow, that it was fastened upon the rest of us, to the damage of our bank accounts, our dignity and our viscera. What lay under it, and under all the other crazy enactments of its category, was no more and no less than the yokel’s congenital and incurable hatred of the city man — his simian rage against everyone who, as he sees it, is having a better time than he is.
The same animus is visible in innumerable other moral statutes, all ardently supported by the peasantry. For example, the Mann Act. The aim of this amazing law, of course, is not to put down adultery; it is simply to put down that variety of adultery which is most agreeable. What got it upon the books was the constant gabble in the rural newspapers about the byzantine debaucheries of urban antinomians — rich stockbrokers who frequented Atlantic City from Friday to Monday, movie actors who traveled about the country with beautiful wenches, and so on. Such aphrodisiacal tales, read beside the kitchen-stove by hinds condemned to monogamous misery with stupid, unclean and ill-natured wives, naturally aroused in them a vast detestation of errant cockneys, and this detestation eventually rolled up enough force to attract the attention of the quacks who make laws at Washington. The result was the Mann Act. Since then a number of the cow States have passed Mann Acts of their own, usually forbidding the use of automobiles “for immoral purposes.” But there is nowhere a law forbidding the use of cow-stables, hay-ricks or other such familiar rustic ateliers of sin. That is to say, there is nowhere a law forbidding yokels to drag virgins into infamy by the crude technic practised since Tertiary times on the farms; there are only laws forbidding city youths to do it according to the refined technic of the great Babylons.
Such are the sweet-smelling and altruistic agronomists whose sorrows are the Leitmotiv of our politics, whose welfare is alleged to be the chief end of democratic statecraft, whose patriotism is the so-called bulwark of this so-called Republic.
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