Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Amish

And of course, a budding fascination with the Amish, possibly the only example of a semi-subsistence people living within a fully developed market economy. Several things fascinate me the most about the Amish:
  1. The capacity of their way of life to resist the fragmenting effects of modernity (for example, as described here):
    The main factor behind the growth is simple: Big families and a high “retention rate.” Part of Amish culture calls for youth to make a conscious decision before they join the church and remain in the community and the Elizabethtown College researchers estimate more than 85% of children raised in the communities choose to remain Amish as adult.
  2. The way their preferences are shaped by their culture to wonderfully befuddle economic expecations
    ...a member wanted to purchase a round baler for hay, which enables a farmer to do hay solo. But some in the community felt that the team approach to hay is an important part of neighborliness and keeping community bonds strong. Eventually they allowed the baler, but only one farmer uses it. (and more examples from here)
  3. Their perpetuity on the margins of a mature economy; interesting critique of that here
    Many people view full employment as the primary purpose of society. It is a concept that animates much of the discussion in economics and politics. If full employment truly is the primary goal of our society, then we should follow the lead of the Amish. They have developed a social structure that provides full employment for every member. In fact, the problem is not too little employment, but too much employment. They have to have large families with many helping hands to absorb all of the employment that the lack of modern equipment affords them.

    Because they do not use tractors, they need many hands to plow, cultivate, and harvest the fields. Milking cows by hand is time-consuming manual labor. Shoveling manure by hand provides employment for some of the less fortunate members of the family. Cutting, transporting, and stacking wood for heat and cooking provides more work that can keep someone busy and sweaty for a considerable period of time.

    By being fairly self reliant, rather than maximizing the benefits of national and international divisions of labor, they choose to be less efficient and to perform activities that subtract from the time they can devote to what they do best. By shunning modern labor-saving devices and technologies — such as electricity, hay bailers, power equipment, and modern milking facilities — they choose to live with less of everything. Many fall within the modern definition of poverty. Nearly all use child labor. They would starve without it.

    Living with less is not necessarily a bad thing. I believe that most Amish people are very satisfied with their chosen lifestyle. Most do not regret the choices they made and find their lives quite rewarding. They are generally people of character who stand up for what they believe in, for the whole world to see.

    Should full employment really be the primary goal of modern society? The Amish live in an agrarian economy. It thrives in the midst of modern society, not because of inherent advantages, but rather because it borrows much more from that society than meets the eye.

    Most third-world countries are also agrarian societies, mired in a state of misery, reflecting the primitiveness of their economies. What they don't have, that the Amish in America do, is economic freedom, secure property rights, a well-developed system of trade, legal protections, fairly reliable money and access to the fruits of capitalist society. Yes, Amish do go to the store to purchase some things that make their lives simpler and more pleasant. They rely on cars and busses to transport them long distances. They use telephones when necessary. Trucks bring their milk to market.
The Amish will, I think, become a touchstone of this blog. And the series, "Amish: World's Squarest Teenagers, about 5 Amish kids on Rumspringa, will be my evening entertainment for the next few weeks. And after that, turning the tables and sending English kids to Amish country.

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