Fall 2009

Inverting the Economic Order

Wendell Berry

“A properly ordered economy, putting nature first and consumption last, would start with the subsistence or household economy and proceed from that to the economy of markets.”

My economic view is from ground level. It is a point of view sometimes described as “agrarian.” That means that in ordering the economy of a household or community or nation, I would put nature first, the economies of land use second, the manufacturing economy third, and the consumer economy fourth. The first law of such an economy would be what the agriculturalist Sir Albert Howard called “the law of return.” This law requires that what is taken from nature must be given back; the fertility cycle must be maintained in continuous rotation. An authentic economy, then, would be based upon renewable resources: land, water, ecological health. These resources, if they are to stay renewable in human use, will depend, in turn, upon resources of culture that also must be kept renewable: accurate local memory, truthful accounting, continuous maintenance, unwastefulness, and a democratic distribution of now-rare practical arts and skills. The primary value in this economy would be the capacity of the natural and cultural systems to renew themselves. The economic virtues thus would be honesty, thrift, care, good work, generosity, and (since this is a creaturely and human, not a mechanical, economy) imagination, from which we have compassion. That primary value and these virtues are essential to what we have been calling “sustainability.”

A properly ordered economy, putting nature first and consumption last, would start with the subsistence or household economy and proceed from that to the economy of markets. It would be the means by which people provide to themselves and to others the things necessary to support life: goods coming from nature and human work. It would distinguish between needs and mere wants, and it would grant a firm precedence to needs.

A proper economy, moreover, would designate certain things as priceless. This would not be, as now, the “pricelessness” of things that are extremely rare or expensive, but would refer to things of absolute value, above and beyond any price that could be set upon them by any market. The things of absolute value would be fertile land, clean water and air, ecological health, and the capacity of nature to renew itself in the economic landscapes. The cultural precedent for this assignment of absolute value that is nearest to us probably is biblical, as in Psalm 24 (“The Earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof . . .”) and Leviticus 25:23 (“The land shall not be sold forever . . .”). But there are precedents in all societies and traditions that have understood the land or the world as sacred—or, speaking practically, as possessing a suprahuman value. The rule of pricelessness clearly imposes certain limits upon the idea of landownership. Owners would enjoy certain customary privileges, necessarily, as the land would be entrusted to their intelligence and responsibility. But they would be expected to use the land as its servants and on behalf of all the living.

The present and now-failing economy is just about exactly opposite to the economy I have just described. Over a long time, and by means of a set of handy prevarications, our economy has become an anti-economy, a financial system without a sound economic basis and without economic virtues.

It has inverted the economic order that puts nature first. This economy is based upon consumption, which ultimately serves not the ordinary consumers but a tiny class of excessively wealthy people for whose further enrichment the economy is understood (by them) to exist. For the purpose of their further enrichment, these plutocrats and the great corporations that serve them have controlled the economy by the purchase of political power. The purchased governments do not act in the interest of the governed; they act instead as agents for the corporations.