Having written favorably on Wendell Berry, and having edited a collection of essays on his work, I would like to respond to Matt Franck’s critique of Berry’s Jefferson Lecture.
I share Matt’s disappointment with the lecture. I found it to be uncharacteristically long, at times redundant, and overall unbalanced in its treatment of corporations.
Berry’s listeners heard the angry Wendell Berry, defending the things he loves that have been lost, or are in danger of being lost. But like the speech of the angry and wounded Andy Catlett to an agricultural conference in Berry’s novel Remembering, this was not Berry’s finest moment.
As Berry acknowledges in his other writings, government has played its own role in the destruction of local economies and communities, small scale farming, and families. On the other hand, the free market (and this includes corporations) has done much to reduce the price of goods, improve health, and protect the environment. Impersonal market transactions are not a zero-sum game. They only occur when all parties to the transaction benefit.
In the case of James B. Duke, the benefit was cheaper cigarettes made possible by cigarette rolling machines. The fact that the product in question is tobacco itself raises interesting questions I cannot address here, but I would encourage readers to take a look at Tocqueville’s contrast of colonial American settlers in the South and North in Democracy in America, I.1.2. Tocqueville identified the problem of Boomers and Stickers well before Berry, and Berry’s first book The Unsettling of America is an impressive complement to Tocqueville’s analysis.
That being said, the corporate form does present serious problems for the responsible use of resources, and in practice often results in exploitative collusion between corporations and governments that is hostile to the interests of local communities and economies, individual proprietors, farmers, and small businesses. Crony capitalism is not the free market; it is the antithesis to the free market.
Moreover, as Berry’s writings have eloquently and elegantly argued, expense should not be the only consideration of consumers. Economic decisions are inevitably moral decisions, and should always be made with just attention to natural, moral and human ecologies. We should treat manipulative advertising, consumerism, individualism and greed as the evils they are.
But this does not mean government is the solution. Individual economic decisions involve complex and difficult tradeoffs in particular circumstances that cannot be dictated from the top without a serious loss of liberty and misuse of resources. The current administration’s failed policies provide ample evidence of this point.
Unfortunately, Berry’s almost complete silence about government in his lecture almost undoubtedly led many of his listeners to a conclusion he did not in fact make, that government is the solution. It is very difficult to believe that this was Berry’s intention, and it certainly cannot be deduced from his other writings, where governments are as guilty as corporations. Port William, his model of a community based on “membership,” has neither corporations nor a government.
In the end, I would strongly encourage people not to judge Berry based upon this one lecture. He fully deserved the honor of the lecture. His body of work in fiction, poetry, and essays constitutes the most impressive effort in our time to protect, preserve, and deepen the knowledge of the human person that lies at the heart of Western civilization, and to oppose the corrosive influences (utilitarianism, individualism, scientism, industrialism, etc.) that threaten to destroy that knowledge. His life itself is a testament of fidelity to that knowledge, worthy of acknowledgment, recognition, and celebration.
Nathan Schlueter is an associate professor of philosophy at Hillsdale College and a visiting fellow in the James Madison Program at Princeton University.
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