« Death of Reaganism | Main | Out of gas? »

Wendell Berry a socialist? Yes, it's libertarianism vs agrarianism again

An argument has broken out in an obscure part of the blogosphere between libertarians, paleoconservatives, and agrarians. You may think you don't care, but I'd like to suggest that arguments like these tend to be more substantive than the typical democrat vs republican swill we're treated to on blogs like Kos and Instapundit.

Libertarian David Gordon wrote a piece critical of Rod Dreher and the "crunchy cons", which provoked responses from Jerry Salyer in the paleocon magazine Chronicles, and from Daniel Larison at Eunomia.

I've talked, briefly, about libertarianism before, and dismissed it as a one-size-fits-all ideology that ignores local realities. I should probably admit that I'm not the best critic of libertarianism because I dismiss it as childish -- an overly simple and simplistic ideology. But this disagreement between Gordon and his critics gives me the chance to bring up one point that I didn't before.

Agrarianism's chief conviction, it seems to me, is that we must take responsibility for what we do. Its arguments for localism are toothless without this conviction behind them. As Wendell Berry points out in many of his essays, the modern, industrial, global economy prevents us from adequately taking responsibilty for our actions because we can't even see what the consequences of our actions are. As I wrote in a previous post:

Our non-agrarian society makes it very difficult to take full responsibility for what we do. According to the agrarian writer Wendell Berry, "When there is no reliable accounting and therefore no competent knowledge of the economic and ecological effects of our lives, we cannot live lives that are economically and ecologically responsible." [Berry, "The Whole Horse"]

Berry thinks that in modern society there is in fact "no reliable accounting," and "no competent knowledge" of what we are doing. "We are thus involved in a kind of lostness in which most people are participating more or less unconsciously in the destruction of the natural world, which is to say, the sources of their own lives. They are doing this unconsciously because they see or do very little of the actual destruction themselves, and they don't know, because they have no way to learn, how they are involved." [Berry, "Two Minds"]


Localism is desirable for agrarians because it helps us to learn what the consequences of our actions are, and limits our destructiveness when we make mistakes.

Given, however, a global society like ours, we need some other ways of learning "how [we] are involved." And this is just where libertarianism fails, and why it ought to be rejected.

The unregulated free market beloved of libertarians, far from educating us about the consequences of what we do, tends just as often to obscure them. It reduces all the complex history of an item to a single number, the price. But even mainstream economists acknowledge that the price frequently fails to reflect even quantitatively (much less qualitatively) much of the "costs" that we pay as a society for the goods we produce. This is, of course, the problem of externalities. The most common example is the price of a gallon of gas, which fails to account for the environmental damage caused by its extraction, refining, transportation, and consumption.

Short of moving towards a local economy, the best way to account for all of the externalities that the market price fails to reflect is... government regulation, in the form of strict penalties for destructive behavior, subsidies for less destructive behavior, mandatory disclosures, and the list goes on.

Libertarians reject all of this, and in so doing set themselves up as obstacles to achieving the kind of responsible society agrarians want.

But enough of that. Larison's and Salyer's answers to Gordon are interesting and I recommend them. Given the economic events of the past month, though, Dreher makes the wittiest riposte:

In the meantime, can I just say how much I hate that Wendell Berry and all the farmers for bringing the entire US economy and global financial system to the edge of the abyss with their financial recklessness. If only we'd had less regulation of the moneymen, like fundamentalist libertarians want, why, we wouldn't be in this fix. Right?

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)