Crumb Trail
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Sunday, August 24, 2003
 

This old Wendell Berry essay, Private Property and the Common Wealth, amplifies some of the ideas discussed in previous posts about agricultural subsidies but does so in a more passionate and altogether better written way. Berry is a novelist, essayist and poet but also a farmer from a long line of farmers.

His subject is property; private property, public property, commons, commonwealth and the various ways we think about land, communities and nature. His purpose is to advocate conservation. His method is intimacy.

"If in order to protect our forest land we designate it a commons or commonwealth separate from private ownership, then who will care for it? The absentee timber companies who see no reason to care about local consequences? The same government agencies and agents who are failing at present to take good care of our public forests? Is it credible that people inadequately skilled and inadequately motivated to care well for the land can be made to care well for it by public insistence that they do so?

The answer is obvious: you cannot get good care in the use of the land by demanding it from public officials. That you have the legal right to demand it does not at all improve the case. If one out of every two of us should become a public official, we would be no nearer to good land stewardship than we are now. The idea that a displaced people might take appropriate care of places is merely absurd: there is no sense in it and no hope. Our present ideas of conservation and of public stewardship are not enough. Duty is not enough. Sentiment is not enough. No mere law, divine or human, could conceivably be enough to protect the land while we are using it.

If we want the land to be cared for, then we must have people living on and from the land who are able and willing to care for it. If-as the idea of commonwealth clearly implies-landowners and land users are accountable to their fellow citizens for their work, their products, and their stewardship, then these landowners and land users must be granted an equitable membership in the economy."

I think he's right - "you cannot get good care in the use of the land by demanding it from public officials. That you have the legal right to demand it does not at all improve the case" - and that from this truth flow many implications for agricultural policy. By what means can we achieve Berry's idea that "landowners and land users must be granted an equitable membership in the economy"? How can we see to it that farmers are paid an equitable amount for their work? What would this mean for urban consumers, especially those who have little income? Wouldn't they just buy their food elsewhere, buy food imported from other lands where there is no sense of stewardship or where poor farmers sell their produce for a pittance?

Policies about subsidies, protectionism and world citizenship must be illuminated by the requirements of stewardship. It does not seem that market mechanisms are adequate to the task since the concept of stewardship is neither well understood nor widely held. We can clean our own house, gradually eliminate production subsidies and reverse the cheap food policy, but we can't change the world.

posted by back40 | 8/24/2003 02:11:00 PM

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