The Freedom of the Independent Yeoman
The financial crisis is resurrecting the oldest economic tension in the country. Will it finally be the day of the independent yeoman? (See also: Self-Sufficiency, Self-Reliance, and Freedom)
Never mind that they were always more mythic creature than reality. Thomas Jefferson's model for the U.S. economy was built around the yeoman farmer.
The Freedom of Self-Sufficiency
The yeoman farmer was free, because he was self-sufficient. He owned some land and the tools he needed to produce the necessities of life. When possible, of course, he'd produce more than that — a surplus to sell, so the family could afford more than the bare necessities. But even in bad times they could produce enough food, clothing, and shelter that they wouldn't starve or freeze.
Jefferson thought this was critical. Men who worked for wages were dependent on their bosses for their livelihood, and that sort of dependency was dangerous for a democracy. There was always pressure on employees to vote their employer's interests, rather than the country's interests.
Industry and Finance
On this issue — and even more so, on the issue of finance — Jefferson was the loser. The prevailing view was that of Alexander Hamilton, who wanted an industrial, financial basis to our economy.
This was anathema to Jefferson, who thought bankers were even worse than bosses. (Jefferson famously called banking institutions "more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies.") The whole enterprise of finance led to a concentration of money and power, while Jefferson thought the nation's interests were best served when money and power were dispersed to the individual citizens.
Jefferson lost — and we're all vastly richer because of it. I've got a post up about how to have a rich country on my personal blog, but the basics — privately property, free markets, and the rule of law — are well known. It was Hamilton's pushing that insured that we had those things, and more: industrial production and a financial industry.
It's tough to get rich as a subsistence farmer. (The only scenario that comes to my mind involves giving up subsistence farming after oil is discovered on your land.) You're going to have a higher standard of living if you work for money, and then use the money to buy the stuff you want.
But you give up a lot when you do that. I've talked before about the many reasons besides frugality to do for yourself. But even more important than those is the freedom that comes from actual self-sufficiency. That freedom has benefits for others besides just yourself. It benefits your neighbors. Indeed, as Jefferson understood, it benefits the whole country.
So, there's an upside to the knocks that the financial system is taking. They're pushing people to learn how to be a little more self-sufficient (sometimes, it's that or starve). They're pushing people to live off the grid. They're making the standard-of-living comparison a little less stark.
Real self-sufficiency is tough. But limited, partial self-sufficiency is easily within the grasp of most people.
A little frugality is an important first step. If there's only one job in town that pays enough to cover your expenses, what will you do if you lose that job? If you can get your expenses down to where there are a dozen jobs that would pay the bills, you're vastly more secure — and vastly more free. (Plus, if you happen to have the high-paying job, you're in a position to do some serious saving and investing.)
Although the yeoman farmer was Jefferson's model, the point is not to work the land. The point is to be free enough — to be self-sufficient enough — to follow your own conscience.