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Amish Economic Lessons

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Two years ago, I took a much-needed weekend vacation to Amish Country in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  As you probably know, the Amish are a plain folk stuck somewhere between antiquity and modernity, clinging onto an isolated agrarian lifestyle.  They are recognized by their furniture, barns, and quilts, as well as their beards and hats.  The Amish, however, comprise much more than those emblematic things.

The Amish culture began in 1693 in Switzerland under Anabaptist leader Jakob Ammann, whose flock eventually migrated to the most fertile regions of America.  In the 1860′s, a more conservative branch known as ‘Old Order’ Amish broke off and stepped even further backward in time.  In Lancaster County, I observed many of the Pennsylvania Dutch, demonstrating a spectrum of cultural beliefs; from the ’Old Order’ Amish, loyal to ‘Ordung’ and ride only in horse-drawn buggies, to the more relatively progressive Mennonite, who drive automobiles and listen to the radio.

Nearly a quarter million strong, the Amish demographic is growing at a rate of 4% a year.  From 1992 to 2008, the Amish grew by 84%.  Politically, the Amish are hard to marginalize, as their values are socially and fiscally conservative, and, as pacifists, they shun war.  Although the Amish communities are not without complications, their level-headed social consciousness made me reconsider our interpretation of the “General Welfare” clause in the Preamble to the Constitution.  What are the duties of American society, and the government it elects?  And what could we possibly learn from such an isolationist group?

Our Situation

Let’s review.  Government officials who, during the good times, clamored with ideas on how to spend federal cash, have fallen silent without ideas on how to save money during the bad.  Government’s paltry response to crises energized a cantankerous public – the Tea Party on the Right, and the Occupy Movement on the Left – but both groups are rudderless in how to stop spending.  As federal tentacles have crept into most aspects of American life, however, when people perceive that a shrinking government would effect them negatively, the majority are less likely to support repealing it.

The creep of this welfare state didn’t happen over night.  Consider that, 52 years ago, Barry Goldwater wrote of our government:  ”The system of restraints have fallen into disrepair.  The federal government has moved into every field in which it believes its services are needed.”  Goldwater also wrote: “I think that the people’s uneasiness in the stifling omnipresence of government has turned into something approaching alarm.  But bemoaning evil will not drive it back, and accusing fingers will not shrink government.”  It’s clear that now, post-Election 2012, our federal government won’t be shrinking any time soon.

Perhaps it is time we radically rethink the American Dream, as David Platt suggests, for individual and collective survival, without partisan sniping, as we face critical decisions (which some are calling a “fiscal cliff”), and a change in behavior necessitates a change in perspective.  I say this because, in recent history, the party supposedly responsible for fiscal conservatism has not delivered.  The GOP has undulated between the establishment and hard-nosed conservatism for the past 50 years.  Although their colossal failures in 1964, 1976, 2008 – and most recently, 2012 – all evoked conservative backlashes, little has changed.  A gap has undoubtedly remained between conservative values and conservative practice, because under Republican control, spending reigned supreme.

So the question now is whether or not we are serious, and whether conservatives and progressives can work together to find common ground.  I am reminded of G.K. Chesterton’s quote:  ”The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.”

Amish Solutions

Notably, it was G.K. Chesterton who devised “Distributism” as a third way – an alternative to Capitalism and Socialism – in which men own the means of production without state interference, as there is no State.  Under this system, men live collectively, as they always have, but no person depends on another for survival.  So it is with the Amish.

While Amish culture is anchored in religion, much of their lifestyle is astutely values-based.   Wikipedia states the Amish “value rural life, manual labor, and humility.”  True, but again, there’s more.  I was able to appreciate their simple ways, and was able to glean five transferable lessons (with one caveat) for the rest of us.  Keep in mind, none of these lessons are to be predicated by governments (whether federal, state or local), but rather are intended for adoption by individuals and communities.

1. Strive For Energy Independence. As they are minimally supported by the electric grid, the Amish are true survivalists.  While their telephones may be at the street (for religious reasons), many use solar panels for electricity, which they use for agricultural and production activities as well as in their households.  The Amish also use natural gas for both farm equipment and household needs such as refrigeration.  Our society could mimic the Amish by using domestic sources for our energy needs, while making sure our actions respect the property rights of our neighbors.

2.  Eat Locally. Through their pastoral way of life, the Amish do not depend on the outside world for food, and are less effected by both food and fuel commodity prices.  Eating locally would benefit the communities that surround us, and, in the end, would be cheaper, without Department of Agriculture subsidies.  Our antiquated supply chains, designed when fuel was abundant and (therefore) cheap, have fostered a system where the average meal travels 1,500 miles to get to our plates.  Eating locally severs our dependence on things unseen for our survival.

3.  Value Senior Citizens and End Entitlements.  These two goals may seem at odds with one other, but are not.  In 1961, the IRS stopped collecting FICA taxes from the Amish, as they refused to accept benefits for Social Security, and then, Medicare.  The Amish rely on their community for everything, from raising barns to health insurance.  Additionally, many Amish maintain a small Daadiheiser, or “grandfather house,” where the elderly live in their later years, on the property of their children.  Furthermore, without insurance, the Amish care about prices.  Therefore, unlike the American health care system, prices stay under control in Amish transactions.  Like the Amish, we should consider “taking care of our own” in their later years, without relying on any government to do it for us.

4.  Value a Productive Lifestyle.  The Amish are up at dawn, laboring in whatever field (or industry) comprises their life’s work.  Hard work is celebrated, and, whether it’s cooking a meal or raising a barn, is meaningful and communal.  Although their deliberate lifestyle choices often give rise to many predictable inefficiencies, they are not insurmountable.  Furthermore, theirs is not necessarily a life of austerity; the Amish simply live within their means and work hard, holding fast to their faith, living out the verses of Ecclesiastes 3, that there is a time for everything; a time to plant and a time to uproot.

5.  Capitalism is Good. As they live simply, it would be easy to think the Amish live an impoverished life.  True, many are under the poverty level.  They choose to live with less, and reject modern capitalism.  However, they are capitalistic, achieving full employment by rejecting child labor laws to feed their families, and eventually, in true agronomic fashion, take their products to market, where they benefit in private exchange with those of us living through modern capitalism for the goods the Amish produce.  Amish products are often valued as being of better quality, as their life is literally in their work.

Caveat to 5.  Morality Checks Capitalism. Some see a socialistic commune with the Amish; I disagree.  While Amish communities work with each other in a pseudo-marketplace, offering goods and services in exchange with one another, none are dependent on the other.  However, as it’s said about the rest of us, no man is an island.  The same is true in Amish Country.  The faith of the Amish comes before all else.  As part of their moral code, they stand ready to provide charity to their neighbors when needed.

As an outsider, it’s easy to be enchanted by such a bucolic lifestyle.  I do not recommend we, as a nation, reject the technologies and advancements we have made and embrace the Amish way of life… but I do want us to recognize that some of our advancements were made hastily and have made us dependent on people far removed from the markets where our transactions are taking place.  With two kids (and another on the way), I would like to see our society embrace some economic reality, and ask questions about where we are, how we got here, and where we are going.  If we were to default on our debt tomorrow, the Amish will survive.  I want to be able to say the same for the rest of us.

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Nov 14, 2012

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