How Much Freedom?

James Madison wrote that "those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who debtors, fall under a like discrimination." It was also Madison who, quite wisely, said that "all men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree."

For over a century now it has been exceedingly difficult for most commercial family-type farmers to accept the fact that they have been evolving into proletarians, producers of raw materials for what has essentially become an oligopolistic food manufacturing industry. Instead, they have doggedly clung to the myth of complete independence.

It was the American economist Thorstein Veblen who dwelt on this fact in his 1923 essay, "The Independent Farmer." He contended that farmers have mythologically held on to the "time-worn make-believe that they are individually self-sufficient masterless men." While often given to exaggeration in his generalizations, Veblen, however, does raise several valid points in respect to the modern farmers' notion of independence in their pursuit of a livelihood.

They have become, he writes, blinded by "the system of business interests in whose web (they) are caught" and have offered their "unwavering loyalty" to a system in which they see themselves acting like other independent businessmen. Ironically, however, most of these other businessmen are not independent; their units of operation rather are "drawn on a large scale ... massive, impersonal, imperturbable and in effect, irresponsible, under the established law and custom, and they are interlocked in an unbreakable framework of common interests."

Farmers, he continues, are surrounded by bankers, manufacturers and food processors who profit from their "effective collusive control of the market, while the foolish farmer does little more than identify with the very people who are most adept at exploiting him. Some day he, too, will share in the prosperity of the system, at least he so believes. The poor farmer turned a deaf ear to the warning that it is certain that all cannot become rich in this way. All cannot be shavers -- some must be fleeced."

It has not been until only very recently that most farmers have come to realize that production costs and markets for their commodities are being determined by factors almost totally unrelated to the inherent physical or human resources or even the theoretical world demand for such commodities. The fact that there is really no such thing in agriculture today as a "free market" has been often overlooked in the farmers' desire to successfully integrate themselves into the nation's present economic structure.

Agriculture itself, it has been said, is competitive, although in reality it is totally dependent on noncompetitive sectors. It is sandwiched between a tightly concentrated inputs industry that protects its profits by passing on its cost to the farmer and an equally small number of commodity traders able to play off producers on one side of a nation or globe against those producers on the other side.

Taking all these historical and economic factors into consideration, one can see that for farmers to abandon a long accustomed idea that they are members of a unique class is but a painful admission of inferior status.

Yet, by taking just such stances in their communities, many farmers have traditionally developed an absolutist attitude toward hired labor, generally regarding such workers as merely low-grade economic inputs, much to the glee of corporate agribusiness. Yet, as Cesar Chavez, a founder of the United Farm Workers, told this reporter back in 1965, "If family farmers would recognize that they have more in common with their farm workers than that which separates them, they could form together the most powerful collective bargaining body that this nation has ever seen."

In adopting such illusionary stances as those mentioned above, farm communities have generally felt that there is little or no reason why the laws of nature or humanity should be changed. Thus, their traditional, often fundamentalist, Protestant-ethic religious beliefs have only tended to underscore such basic conservatism.

Addressing this very question in a brilliant Gregory Foundation Memorial Lecture on "The Rural Foundation of American Culture" at the University of Missouri on Jan. 26, 1976, social anthropologist Dr. Walter Goldschmidt observed:

"I said earlier that one aspect of the Protestant ethic ... is a belief that each individual's value is established by his accomplishment, and that for that reason each person should be allowed to grow as wealthy and powerful as he can. But this unfettered growth of wealth and power threatens the very social framework out of which it has emerged. It is not an easy dilemma to solve, for it confronts freedom with equality -- an age-old issue ... How much freedom? How much equality? Very much is at stake, not only for the farm communities, but for the whole of the American polity.

"If, as I have suggested, the growth of corporate control of agriculture is not a product of efficiency, intelligence and hard work -- of virtue according to the Protestant Ethic -- but a consequence of policies and manipulations, the matter takes on a different character. The task is to reformulate policies respecting agriculture so that the competitive advantage of large scale operations are removed, so that the ordinary working farmer has an equal chance. If this is done, it may not be necessary to resolve the dilemma between freedom and equality."

It is necessary, therefore, that in any discussion concerning the shaping of our nation's farm character, and how that character impacts on the development of US farm and food policy, and that process from which it has evolved, that we immediately recognize the importance of the questions posed above by Dr. Goldschmidt. How much freedom? How much equality? And thus who has primarily benefited from US agricultural and food policy decisions?

Honest answers to such questions are crucial if we are to properly understand the roots and significance of America's chronic agricultural crisis and who are the key instigators in this crisis.

Indeed, one might also characterize the questions Dr. Goldschmidt raises regarding freedom/equality as similar to those very philosophical and political arguments that have for so long revolved around the ideas of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.

A.V. Krebs is director of the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, PO Box 2201, Everett, WA 98203. He publishes a free email newsletter, The Agribusiness Examiner; email

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