Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The"lost" Life of the Rural Poor

A short description on Don Boudreaux’s Café Hayek HERE of the narrow horizon’s of the Medieval peasant caught my attention.

Move forwards half a millennia to the continuing spread of commercial society, commercial technological innovation, to the young (in historical terms) freedoms emerging in civil society, and the hollow romantic condemnations of the life of lowly ‘wage slaves’ in the first steps to 12-hour day waged-employment, and try to convince those involved to return to 16-hour backbreaking drudgery of farm labour for next-to-nothing in cash, and those so-called victims would have considered you both ignorant of the realities of the alternatives or mad. As the children involved, compared to their own parents, they feel liberated – even with a long way to go to join your living standards, but their children will be much closer to yours, and, perhaps, still moving on towards and past yours (compare in thirty-years time the Indian, Chinese, and Brazilian futures with the prospects for European children and grandchildren).

Extract from Will Durant’s, The Age of Faith (1950), page 557; here Durant writes about the typical medieval peasant:

He shared in the social life of the village, but had no cultural interests. He could not read; a literate serf would have been an offense to his illiterate lord. He was ignorant of everything but farming, and not too skilled in that. His manners were rough and hearty, perhaps gross; in this turmoil of European history he had to survive by being a good animal, and he managed it. He was greedy because poor, cruel because fearful, violent because repressed, churlish because treated as a churl. He was the mainstay of the church, but he had more superstition than religion.

But this peasant was a locovore whose food (when such was available, as it frequently was not) was organic

A BBC, longtime, experienced reporter from India commented on well-meaning western activists (the relatively priviledged children of middle-class parents) who ‘shamed’ a famous global sports brand by ‘exposing’ the 12-hour days for a pittance (by western standards) in wages of young children in Indian factories. The ‘exploitation’ was stopped and the children ‘freed’ to go back to from whence they came.

The BBC man commented that he saw the same "freed"children hanging about the road to town once again, not playing games. The young boys and girls, now unemployed from making footballs, were back at their prior lives soliciting as ‘rent boys’ and prostitutes for pittances from men in passing traffic commuting to town. He concluded they were better off being ‘exploited’ for low, but regular, wages making footballs; so were their parents. No thanks to the western activists they were sex workers, once again.

A story from Vietnam carried the same message. An adult woman was asked about conditions in near-by western factories making branded clothes for western markets for much less than the European minimum wages. She replied that it was a lot better than farm labour for 18-hours a day, and it was regular. It was also dry compared to open fields in rain.

I am reminded of the frailty of western activists experience in the current angst in Britain about its so-called ”austerity” budgets.
Those alive during the second-world war and its aftermath know something of real austerity with rationing and without the common appurtenances of 21st-century life suffered by those affected (mobiles, i-pads, laptops, 24-hour news, colour tvs, cars, air-travel and cheap holidays to the Far East, etc.,). Amazing what a taste of prosperity does for one's perspective.

Back in the 18th century, when some of our ancestors experienced the early stirrings of the slow spread of commercial society from the so-called joys of farming and mining, Adam Smith observed what was going on and welcomed it as a liberating force, which, if continued, would lead to a shared opulence among the labouring poor. Smith took a long-view of history and, while not engaging in today’s activist idealism, he had a sense of constrained optimism about what was going on. It wasn’t that the garden as rosy; it was that conditions were emerging, despite the unintentional efforts of legislators to respond to the myopic visions of personal greed among those who influenced them, for a better future.

I suggest improvements in our comparative hindsight does wonders for our perspective. Clarity about the past is far more realistic than imaginations about a world utopia that will never exist. Study history if you seek a better future.


Blogger Unlearningecon said...

Gavin, your Cafe Hayek link is broken.

6:45 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...


Cafe Hayek reported this afternoon that their site was down on a technical matter.

I re-set the link and it worked for me just now.


9:07 pm  

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