The Corner

Culture

Ask a Farmer

(Joshua Lott/REUTERS)

Declan Leary writes:

It is perfectly plausible that the manual farmer tilling the land in 1907, whom Harsanyi so pities, found more dignity in the work than does a modern laborer overseeing the mechanical processes of near-automated farming.

Is it perfectly plausible? I wonder if Declan ever has thought to ask a farmer about that. I have.

One of the few truly general laws of human behavior is that subsistence farmers given the choice will choose almost any other occupation. The farmers were not driven off their land in the United States. They left as quickly as they could. They have done the same in India, China, Mexico, and practically every other place in the world in which economic development liberated people from the privation and misery of low-capital farming. My parents and grandparents picked cotton, and I can inform you that “dignity” was not among their leading motivations — desperation and the specter of hunger were.

On the other hand, a modern farmer harvesting cotton with modern equipment can make well over $100,000 a year, and enjoys the dignity of being far, far removed from dirt floors and outdoor plumbing.

Perfectly plausible? Perfectly preposterous.

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