We Will Berry You!”€”The Flaky Socialism of the Crunchy Cons

When you read the Crunchy Cons, one name comes up again and again. As a political movement, the group has been spearheaded by Rod Dreher, and it to him that we owe the phrase “€œCrunchy Cons.”€ Yet although he has mounted a spirited defense of the group’s credo in his Crunchy Cons: The New Conservative Culture and Its Return to Roots and writes a Crunchy Con blog, he is not the movement’s principal ideologue. That post belongs to the poet, novelist, literary scholar, and farmer Wendell Berry

Before turning to him, though, let’s look at what the Crunchy Cons believe, according to Dreher’s able and authoritative exposition. Environmentalism and touting the virtues of eating organic food and, in general, getting back to nature at first sight suggest the Greens, usually classed as a movement of the Left. But for Dreher this is a false picture. True conservatives rank values, particularly religious values, higher than the pursuit of material gain, and concern for the environment reflects a proper appreciation of those values. “€œA conservatism that does not recognize the need for restraint, for limits, and for humility is neither helpful to individuals and society nor, ultimately, conservative. This is particularly true with respect to the natural world.”€

The Crunchy Cons, devoted to what Russell Kirk called the Permanent Things, reject prevailing political opinions: “€œBoth mainstream liberalism and conservatism are essentially materialist ideologies, and we should not be surprised that both shape a society dedicated to the multiplication of wants and the intensification of desire, not the improvement of character.”€

With much of this, no reasonable person will quarrel. If Dreher and his friends wish to renounce life in big cities and devote themselves, to the extent that they are able, to an “€œorganic”€ way of life, they have every right to do so. But the question inevitably arises, what of those of us who do not find modern life quite so repulsive as they do? Do the Crunchy Cons wish to force their way of life on others?

To answer that question, one must work one’s way through their magniloquent rhetoric and examine the political measures that they favor. Doing so leads to disquieting results. Dreher supports radical restrictions on freedom in order to promote the values he prefers. To advance the “€œcrunchy-con political agenda,”€ Dreher want to

Ban cloning, strictly limit human genetic research, and closely regulate the biotech industry;. . . Shape zoning restrictions to favor the preservation of old buildings of historical value, require new development to conform to high aesthetic standards, and provide more public spaces for human interaction; and … Adopt an attitude toward business laws that favors small businesses over large corporations”€ (emphasis added)

One may share the values that lie behind these prescriptions”€”I myself view cloning with apprehension and like old buildings”€”but what grounds does Dreher have for forcing those who dissent from them to conform to what he wants? What if people, however unpleasant Dreher finds this, prefer to purchase factory-farmed rather than organic chicken, because doing so is considerably cheaper? No one, after all, forces those with Dreher’s preferences to purchase food he does not like: why should he be allowed a similar privilege over others?

To these questions, and to the view that lies behind them, there is an obvious response. Why, the Crunchy Cons may say, should we start from the premise that everyone should be free to do as he pleases, so long as he does not initiate force against others? Is not this premise an expression of the philosophy of unlimited pursuit of gain the Crunchy Cons reject? To assume, as I have done, a libertarian starting point is to beg the question against them.

But I have not assumed such a starting point. Rather, I suggest only that the use of force requires some justification. If Dreher wishes to say, as one presumes he would, that the values he supports do mandate the use of force, he owes us some argument. He would have to present us with some account of what rights people have, what is the nature of property in a free society, etc. (If, following Alasdair MacIntyre, he rejects the notion of rights, he would have to explain his political philosophy on some other basis.)

He does not do so, and this is my basic criticism of him. Instead of offering some systematic and reasoned account of his views, he presents us with a number of folksy narratives of his conversations that all have the general form: “€œI went down to the farm and spent a nice afternoon with Joe and Mary Blow, who told me that since they threw over their jobs in Wall Street and started just scratchin”€™ out a livin”€™, they find life much more satisfying.”€

The low level of argument one gets in Dreher’s book can be sampled in what he says about environmental policy. Recounting yet more of his interminable conversations, he tells us that Matthew Scully, Jim DiPeso, and Tony Dean like wetlands and deplore factory farming, but this does not give us any reason to share these views.

Dreher informs us that even if the evidence for global warming were inconclusive (he in fact thinks it is overwhelming), “€œgiven the catastrophic results of a global temperature rise. . [this].would compel the prudent conservative (which used to be a redundant phrase) to act as if the worst was likely.”€ Though I in fact disagree with his recommendation, I do not wish here to argue for a different course of action. Rather, what bears remarking is that the principle that Dreher takes as obvious, “€œact as if the worst was likely”€, has, under the name the “€œprecautionary principle,”€ generated an enormous critical literature. (Wilfred Beckerman and Cass Sunstein, among many others, are leading critics of the principle; I discuss some of the arguments in my review of Beckerman’s A Poverty of Reason.) Once more, though, I do not wish to argue for a position on this principle: my point is that Dreher is appallingly ignorant of the literature. He doesn”€™t even know that there is a controversy. He is not alone in this failing. In a book that Dreher praises highly, Small Is Still Beautiful, the literary scholar Joseph Pearce makes exactly the same mistake.

Matters do not improve if one turns to Wendell Berry, whose writing Dreher finds to be “€œprophetic”€. He is by no means the only person of this opinion: the book Wendell Berry: His Life and Work, edited by Jason Peters, contains a whole series of adulatory essays devoted to his thought.

Readers probably expect me now to say that Berry is a worthless thinker, who writes the merest drivel”€”but this is far from my view. When he sticks to what he knows, his work repays careful study. He writes admirably, for example, about the meaning of death in King Lear. He has much to say about the properties of topsoil and the conduct of agriculture. I am in no position to judge what he says about this, but his views obviously are the product of long years of study and experience.

Regrettably, he has much to say about economics as well. He supports a fairly standard version of the New Deal, with a strong bias toward agriculture. In “€œThe Idea of a Local Economy,”€ an essay that appears in The Art of the Commonplace, Berry defends “€œlaws against trusts and monopolies, the principle of collective bargaining, the concept of one-hundred percent parity between the land-using and the manufacturing economies, and the progressive income tax.”€

It will come as no surprise that I do not share this program, but once more my purpose here is not to challenge his policies but to ask how he supports them. He does so in an abysmally poor way. His views form a virtual compendium of anti-free-market clichés.

In “€œEconomy and Pleasure,”€ another essay in the same collection, he discusses “€œthe falseness and silliness of the economic ideal of competition, which is destructive both of nature and of human nature because it is untrue to both.”€ Berry’s argument for this is that competition presupposes winners and losers: those who lose find their livelihood, if not their life itself, destroyed.

The ideal of competition always implies, and in fact requires, that any community must be divided into a class of winners and a class of losers. . . In fact, the winners have never known what to do with or for the losers. The losers simply accumulate in human dumps, like stores of industrial waste, until they gain enough misery and strength to overpower the winners. The idea that the displaced and dispossessed “€˜should seek retraining and get into another line of work”€™ is, of course, utterly cynical; it is only the hand-washing practiced by officials and experts. A loser, by definition, is somebody whom nobody knows what to do with.

Berry has confused two very different things. In a war, each combatant aims to destroy the other. But economic competition is not a war. Quite the contrary, competition in a free market is a form of social cooperation. Civilization rests on the widespread division of labor: not even Berry imagines that everyone could live in the small self-subsistent agricultural communities he thinks ideal. If people need to cooperate in this way in order to survive, how can the their activities be coordinated? The price system of the free market offers the only satisfactory answer. Through it, people and resources are prompted to the employment that will best satisfy the preferences of consumers, as reflected in their dollar votes.

“€œLosers”€ are not destroyed but directed to different lines of work. Berry may mock as cynics those who speak of getting into another line of work, but a simple fact shows the error of what he says. As he well knows, and deplores, the agricultural sector of the American economy continually decreased in the twentieth century. The many farmers no longer able to find jobs in agriculture did not die but found other sorts of work. Berry defines “€œloser,”€ so that this cannot happen: if “€œno one knows what to do”€ with a loser, he will not be able to find other work. But by this definition, he hasn”€™t shown that there are losers in a free market.

Berry might respond that if workers, particularly farm workers, have to abandon their customary work, their lives have been effectively destroyed.

If one person is willing to take another’s property or to accept another’s ruin as a normal result of economic enterprise, then he is willing to destroy that other person’s life as it is and is it desires to be… That this person is now “€˜free”€™ to “€˜seek retraining and get into another line of work”€™ signifies only that his life as it was has been destroyed.”€ (Emphasis added)

Once more, Berry has failed to note, or willfully neglected, an elementary point. Farmers are not being forced to leave agriculture at gunpoint. Rather, they have chosen to grow crops for a market, or to seek employment with other market-seeking farmers. If they cannot make it in this activity, this means that consumers prefer to spend their money on other things. If Berry wants their way of life preserved, he is calling for the forcible controls on how others chose to spend their money. If people, sharing Berry’s values, form a small community that grows its own crops, then the market cannot displace them. It is only those who produce for the market that are subject to its verdict.

Berry could have discovered these elementary facts had he read the relevant works of Mises and Hayek, but he shows not the slightest acquaintance with them, or for that matter with the writings of any other economist. One might object that these authors adopt an entirely too roseate vision of the free market, and certainly there are economists one could cite in defense of this view. (James K. Galbraith’s The Predator State is a recent book highly critical of the market economy.) But here once again my fundamental claim recurs. To challenge the market, one must have some acquaintance with the relevant literature. Berry manifests no sign that anyone has ever analyzed the contentions that to him seem blindingly obvious. The notion that economics is a serious academic discipline, one that needs study before its conclusions are condemned, seems not to have occurred to him. In his attitude he resembles Ezra Pound, with his endless condemnations of “€œusura”€. Like Pound, he is on economic affairs a crank, although, unlike Berry, Pound did possess a wide if idiosyncratic knowledge of history. 

In view of Berry’s plangent complaints that market capitalism destroys human beings, it is more than a little ironic that Berry is himself a tobacco farmer. I certainly do not favor any interference with tobacco farming, but the role of tobacco in causing heart disease and lung cancer is a matter rather better supported, I should think, than the alleged dangers of global warming. Berry ought to attend to his own house before he condemns others.

In fairness to the Crunchy Cons, one should note that not all of them oppose the free market. Joel Salatin, who is featured in Dreher’s book, is an organic farmer of libertarian views. He wishes only to be free of government regulations that interfere with his activities, an altogether legitimate demand. On the whole, though, the Crunchy Cons are statists of a familiar sort, distinguished by their ignorance of economics.

David Gordon is a senior fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and editor of its Mises Review.


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