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Saving agrarianism from petty local tyrants and yahoos

Eating local, buying local, thinking local all are now in-usually among people who are in no sense “locals.”

Jeremy Beer

Beer’s fantastic essay against meritocracy raises again the thorniest problem we face, a problem that on my optimistic days I think we’ll solve, and on my pessimistic days think will send us to our doom.  I think Beer has it right, but I sympathize with those who are tempted to shout, while reading his essay, “Facism!  Tyranny!”

The problem I’m talking about is: how can we limit our oil-guzzling, community-disparaging, environment-destroying behavior (our industrial behavior) — which requires acknowledging that we are each profoundly more limited than we have been willing to admit — without falling prey to the small-scale authoritarians who so often justify themselves by appealing to these natural limits?

You know who I’m talking about — religious zealots who say we should be denied the freedom to choose because God has already made all the important decisions for us.  Racists who appeal to “natural” human differences to justify their own preferred socioeconomic hierarchies, with themselves always on top.  Small-town traditionalists who won’t hesitate to enforce their traditional views on the rest of us because of some presumed inevitability of their preferred traditions.  Think of most gay-marriage opponents and you’ll have no trouble identifying the kinds of folks I’m talking about.


We need to preserve the love of freedom bequeathed by classical liberalism, while avoiding the overweening hubris with which we liberals are cursed.  We need to appreciate the benefits of agrarianism without accepting the petty tyrants who sometimes make agrarian arguments.  We need to be able to read Beer’s essay without being reminded of Charles Murray* and James Dobson.  There is a profound difference between the correction of liberal hubris and illiberal authoritarianism.  In other words, human limitation isn’t the same thing as being limited by humans.

Beer again: “We arrived to that point of the talk where you are beginning to ask, “Well, what would you have us do?” and the speaker provides responses that are laughably inadequate to the mammoth problem he has described. I will follow in that tradition.”

I think Beer’s solutions are better than wholly inadequate (and I mean that as a ringing endorsement).  These boil down to: ending subsidies for bad behavior, and encouraging good behavior.  Which are, by the way, perfectly acceptable to and frequently offered by classical liberals concerned to protect our freedom from authoritarians.  My optimistic self thinks that a rooted, agrarian life is intrinsically appealing to many people.  It just has to be accurately described.  And it can’t be burdened by subsidizing the opposite, which is what we do now.  My pessimistic self thinks that the chances of agrarianism being described accurately are virtually nil, because too many of the people who try to describe it are illiberal petty authoritarian traditionalists.  Beer doesn’t sound like one of these, however, so I wish him the best of luck.

I hope you’ll read Beer’s essay, and the comments as well.**

*Beer identifies Charles Murray as a meritocrat, which may be true, but the the salient point about Charles Murray is his racism.  While he occasionally defends his racism with the language of meritocracy, most of Murray’s argument rests on a naturalism that can be confused with the naturalism of agrarians like Wendell Berry.

**One of the reasons why the Front Porch Republic is one of the best blogs is that the comments are shockingly free of stupid and illiterate ranting, when compared with most other sites.

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