Propriety and Personal Economics

I read a chapter from Wendell Berry’s book Life is a Miracle last week that has set me to thinking about the questions we ask ourselves when endeavoring to live a “successful” life and specifically when we think in terms of personal economics.

Berry’s second chapter, Propriety, is no walk in the park, but with the patience to read and possibly to re-read certain sections, I stumbled into a deeper understanding of an issue I’ve long wondered about and questioned.  It is also not directly written toward the idea of personal economy but is much larger in scope taking in technology, innovation and especially, science.  From it however, I’ve found new insight and begun to ask new questions.

It seems that modern American ideals of personal economics are driven by two main questions:

  1. How much do I make? (the goal being to make more and more)
  2. How much does a service or product cost me? (the goal being to pay as little as possible)

These are the two questions that drive personal economics for most with the goal being to earn more money – preferably a lot more – than is spent.  Money can then be saved or spent however one wants which most believe leads to personal happiness.

But this, even as I have acquiesced to it in my own life, has always bothered me.  It seems a short-sighted and somewhat selfish way to live that eventually comes back to haunt us all.

We have bought into the whole notion of upward mobility and the American dream without stopping to consider the ramifications.  We have lived for the pursuit of individual happiness above all else.

How does this work out in life?

  • We drive thirty miles to shop for our groceries where it is “cheaper” rather than getting our groceries from our local grocery store.
  • Our farms get bigger and bigger so we can grow more and more and we no longer have any neighbors.
  • We order online from the cheapest distributer rather than from a local merchant.

And of course in rural America we are paying a terrible price for our reliance on these two questions, these two bastions of capitalism.

  • Our grocery stores are closing down.
  • Our schools are closing.
  • Our churches are closing.
  • Our towns are dying.

Please don’t get me wrong.  I am not against capitalism – I think it is perhaps our best system to live within as far as economics go.  But capitalism based only on t the two goals of making more money and paying less money will always lead to the breakdown of communities.

And that is why, as Berry asserts, a third question must be added and that is the question of propriety.

Is it proper?  Is it appropriate?  Is it good for me and for the community?

Without this question guiding us we will always strive for more rather than enough.  I may save a few dollars paying online, but what am I loosing?

A few months back I stumbled upon a journal from one of the local farmers around our area in Southeast South Dakota.  In it she recorded a bit of each day in that year – 1968.

It snowed a lot that year and so snow removal sets the theme for much of the early months.  The drakes were butchered regularly.  Preparations were made for planting.  Gardens were tended. Doctors were visited.  All the normal mundane things that have happened on farms from time immemorial and many of which still happen today were recorded in her journal.

But there was one recurring entry that impacted me more than any other.  And it went like this:

  • We went to visit the Smith family tonight.  Had a wonderful time.
  • The James family visited Sunday afternoon.
  • Mrs. Frank Thomas came with a pie.  We had a nice visit.

I’ve changed the names to protect the innocent but the theme persisted all year long.  People were coming to visit and going to visit on a weekly basis.

The idea of community was alive and well.

And it is something that, at least in our rural communities, is being lost.

There are many factors we could blame for this of course and I won’t be so naive as to say that our economic choices are the only cause.  But they are part of the cause.

When we begin to ask what is proper, what is appropriate and what is good for the community before we look only to making the most money or getting the cheapest prices, then we will begin to make the choices that will help to sustain our communities.

And that will be good for us as well.


You can find Life is a Miracle at Freeman Public Library like I did, at your local bookstore or at Amazon*.

Read a great review of Life is a Miracle at Against Nothingness.

*Affiliate Link

3 thoughts on “Propriety and Personal Economics

  1. I finally read this tonight, having book marked it weeks ago after seeing your comment either on the catholic homesteading forum or the catholic land movement blog. I think you are getting at a theme that is becoming more and more popular. Questioning progress for its own sake. Actually just before reading this I read a similar post on the Living the Rustic Life blog, which you should check out if to haven’t. I work with Amish for a living and their approach to technology has some wisdom. Conway to popular misunderstanding they don’t sun all modern technology simply for dogmatic religious reasons. The ones I work with are huge fans of LED head lights for example. They explain their approach to me in two ways. First they ask, “Did or fathers use this, and if not then is there any reason that we need to?” and, “How will this affect our family and community life?” So when I asked them to let me set up a voice mail system where I could leave orders for the products I pick up from them several times a week they decided no because they knew it would lead them to leaving messages for each other rather than riding over to each other’s house to give the message in person.

  2. Zeb,

    Thanks so much for stopping back by and for your comment. Such a great insight from the Amish community you work with. I love their two question approach and the way they decided to forgo the voice mail system. I’ll check out Living the Rustic Life too.



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