Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Unsolicited Insight for the Folks in Washington

“Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.”

--Thomas Jefferson

Seldom does an issue pass through Washington that politicians don’t employ the words and legacy of America’s founding fathers. Flipping through channels and scanning CNN, MSNBC and Fox News I can’t help but confuse members of Congress for the judges of American Idol; both sides of the aisle reciting the words of Jefferson and Adams with a sense of passion and sensationalism that appeals to our (their constituents) need for melodrama. Some are better at this than others of course, and depending on which head is talking you might think for a moment that they had spent a considerable amount of time sidled up to the bar next to America’s first revolutionaries. Only to realize that after taking a step back from their TV drama, they know little more about those whose words they’ve employed than the summer intern who typed “Founding Fathers quotes” into Google Search.

But politicians beware. While you often corrupt the words of America’s forebears with partisan bravado, you provide the source to future political and economic movements. By calling upon the legacy of those such as Thomas Jefferson, you are indeed employing that of an American patriot. You are also calling upon one whose words do not necessarily parallel what we have become.

While politicians wrestle between the sheets with corporate America and big business, they continue to polarize themselves from the vision of the very man they claim to know so well. Jefferson, while a man of politics, was also proponent of small landowners and agrarianism. In a 1785 letter to James Madison, Jefferson writes, “The small landholders are the most precious part of the state.” Why? As Kimberly K. Smith points out, “[Jefferson] argued that farming instilled such desirable traits as industry, frugality, humility (in the sense of lack of unseemly ambition), and a reliable interest in law, order, and individual rights.”1

In other words, farming taught folks the value of an honest day’s work and the ability to live within one’s means, as well as the importance and appreciation of those policies set forth to protect and ensure a person’s livelihood and integrity.

Hardly the lesson of Wall Street and hypercapitalism.

In post-World War II America, there has been a dramatic shift from Jefferson’s paradigm; one that has become the policy of governments both State and Federal. It was Earl Butz, Secretary of Agriculture under President Nixon—and patron saint of agribusiness--who said, “Get big or get out” prompting an era of 1,000-acre farms and billion bushel harvests. Sure, Washington and corporate America seek industrious methods and practices. But not necessarily with regard to an honest day’s work and certainly without regard to sustainability. Rather, how much can one produce and for what cost? What is going to raise the level of the GDP? When will the DOW hit 16,000?

What’s this about frugality and humility?

However, Jefferson believed that the value of small landowners went beyond developing good citizens. It was part of protecting the integrity of government. Smith points out, “Most important, however, farming cultivated independence—specifically, independence from the ties of patronage and the economic influence of employers that threatened to corrupt the political process.”2

Uh oh. Economic influences and corruption in the political process? Whatever do you mean?

How about the Enron scandal and the George W. Bush administration? Remember Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, the economic collapse of 2008 and the small loan they received from the Federal government compliments of US taxpayers? Or Jeff Immelt, CEO of General Electric, serving as an outside advisor to President Obama?

And, of course, there are more. Many more.

The internal threat to the political process that Jefferson so feared is a reality. Corporations and big business are intertwined with government and serve as a catalytic force in creating and enacting policy. Policy that all too often falls short with regard to sustainability and those laborers of the earth whom Jefferson exalted as the “chosen people of the earth.” As Smith shrewdly points out, “Corporations use their economic power to corrupt legislatures” who are then, “induced to grant them special privileges, resulting in monopolies destructive of economic competition and begetting the ‘un-republican vices of fawning, subservience, and venality.’”3

So when senators and representatives pontificate and recite the words of America’s founders in hopes of appealing to American nostalgia, understand they are employing the very people who stood against the tyranny of a corrupt system. Folks in Washington be warned. The cultural politics of those statesmen whom you are so quick to cite may be starkly different from the partisan agenda for which you so adamantly advocate--your direction opposite of their founding vision.

So, to our dearly elected civil servants and representatives of the people, where stand America’s small landowners? Are they still the virtuous protectors of integrity? What value do they have in our present economy and culture? Better yet, do they have value? Or have they been replaced by the “get big or get out” philosophy of Earl Butz and the corporatization of American government?

1 Smith, Kimberly K. Wendell Berry and the Agrarian Tradition: A Common Grace. Lawrence, KS:  University of Kansas, 2003, pp. 21.
2 Smith, 21.
3 Smith, 25.