Reimagining American Community
Jan
18

Last April, I had the immense pleasure of attending the annual Jefferson Lecture, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The 2012 honoree was Wendell Berry. The title of his talk was “It All Turns on Affection.” In the following quote, Berry (with the help of Allen Tate) meditates on the connection between affection and property.

Economy in its original—and, I think, its proper—sense refers to household management. By extension, it refers to the husbanding of all the goods by which we live. An authentic economy, if we had one, would define and make, on the terms of thrift and affection, our connections to nature and to one another. Our present industrial system also makes those connections, but by pillage and indifference. Most economists think of this arrangement as “the economy.” Their columns and articles rarely if ever mention the land-communities and land-use economies. They never ask, in their professional oblivion, why we are willing to do permanent ecological and cultural damage “to strengthen the economy?”

In his essay, “Notes on Liberty and Property,” Allen Tate gave us an indispensable anatomy of our problem. His essay begins by equating, not liberty and property, but liberty and control of one’s property. He then makes the crucial distinction between ownership that is merely legal and what he calls “effective ownership.” If a property, say a small farm, has one owner, then the one owner has an effective and assured, if limited, control over it as long as he or she can afford to own it, and is free to sell it or use it, and (I will add) free to use it poorly or well. It is clear also that effective ownership of a small property is personal and therefore can, at least possibly, be intimate, familial, and affectionate. If, on the contrary, a person owns a small property of stock in a large corporation, then that person has surrendered control of the property to larger shareholders. The drastic mistake our people made, as Tate believed and I agree, was to be convinced “that there is one kind of property—just property, whether it be a thirty-acre farm in Kentucky or a stock certificate in the United States Steel Corporation.” By means of this confusion, Tate said, “Small ownership . . . has been worsted by big, dispersed ownership—the giant corporation.”

About the Author
Mark Gordon is a descendant of a Scottish prisoner of war sold into indentured servitude in 1652. The Gordons have been trapped in New England ever since. Mark earned a degree in philosophy and then worked as a commercial fisherman, Army officer, trade magazine editor, and serial entrepreneur, which just shows what you can do with a degree in philosophy. He’s written for the National Catholic Register, Mars Hill Journal, Aleteia, and a lot of little publications of no one has ever heard of.