Our Economic Future (& Limits Theory)

Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city,
and a tower with its top in the heavens,
and let us make a name for ourselves,
lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” Genesis 11:4

Relaxing on our back porch, sipping my drink of choice, surveying with glee a freshly mowed lawn, and a garden that doesn’t yet need weeding, many things pass through these old brain cells of mine. Given the daily news, they all seem to coalesce around the concerns of our present economic culture—more specifically, how my family and I are to live out our lives and our faith in this modern industrial progressivist culture.

A brain synapse sparked, and I remembered something from a calculus class many, many years ago, something called Limits Theory. Now, I’ve certainly forgotten far more than I ever learned, but I remember a graph associated with an old conundrum called Zeno’s paradox. If you are standing five feet from a wall, and start walking toward it, with each step equal to half the remaining distance to the wall, how many steps and how long will it take to reach the wall? The answer in both cases is infinite, in other words, never. You’ll get increasingly closer and closer, but you will only ever reach one half the distance that is left to the wall.

There are several ways to visualize this conundrum, but one way is with the graph to the right. Each dot and the vertical increase of one unit represent each step half-way horizontally towards the wall. (Now all you mathematicians and economists out there, take a breather—I’m doing the best I can.)

What amazes me is how this graph seems to depict everything in our present modern human condition. Take, for example, the history of travel. If the horizontal left-to-right axis of this graph represents time, then each dot represents the great advancements in travel throughout the history of mankind. For many centuries, humanity traveled on foot, then came the use of critters, then the wheel, then carriages, chariots, wagons, and these improvements carried humanity for centuries, until the industrial age brought the bicycle, and steamships, trains, and the automobile, and then the airplane, and space travel, and the Segway Personal Transporter, and on and on.

What is significant, illustrated by the graph, is that the acceleration of these advancements has reached such a break-neck speed that we really have no way of projecting where travel will be in fifty, twenty-five, five, or even one year from now. Nor can we identify the trajectory or goal of this progress in transportation. We are living on the vertical accelerating slope of a travel revolution that has no foreseeable destination.

Take, for another example, the history of communications. Humanity went for centuries with only verbal or hand communications and scratching out symbols on rocks. Long distance communication required either yelling louder and waving more emphatically, or sending out messengers (”apostles”), or passing around dried mud cuneiforms. Then someone invented papyrus and paper and chalk and ink and quills and binding, but still for centuries communication was limited to screaming, messengers, and hand-copying.

Then moveable type came along, and printing, and mass publishing, and then fountain pens, typewriters, telegraph, telephones, loud speakers, radio, television, computers, cellphones, internet, etc., etc., etc., and you get my drift. Again, note the acceleration of these advancements, or should I say changes, in how we communicate. Now, with every single day bringing some new communications advancement and product, it hardly pays to buy anything, because by tomorrow it will be obsolete. Again we have no way of identifying or predicting the trajectory or goal of this progress in communications. We are living on the vertical accelerating slope of a communications revolution that has no foreseeable destination.

This same historical accelerating phenomenon is true of nearly every aspect of our lives: trade, information, markets, clothing styles, goods and services, medical care and insurance, and particularly change itself. There was a time when people lived their entire lives  with little changes in any of these things: from the time they were born until death, they barely saw changes in clothing, communication, travel, cuisine, even politics.

Yet today, we live on the vertical slope of change in everything, and like the man on the graph to the right, the anxiety of trying to live in this accelerating, goalless culture of presumed progress is also accelerating. This explains why this graph also depicts the acceleration of crime and drugs, divorce and broken lives, even the increase in the previously unimagined acceptance of immoral lifestyles.

Significantly, the graph also depicts the rise in our national, global, as well as personal debt, and interestingly, also depicts the historic rise in persecution and martyrdoms of those who try to stand for what has always been known as right, true, and beautiful. It even depicts the increasing challenges to our religious freedom in this our “land of the free and home of the brave.”

This entire scenario reminds me of a quote about industrialism:

The tempo of the industrial life is fast, but that is not the worst of it; it is accelerating. The ideal is not merely some set form of industrialism, with so many stable industries, but industrial progress, or an incessant extension of industrialization. It never proposes a specific goal; it initiates the infinities series. We have not merely capitalized certain industries; we have capitalized the laboratories and inventors, and undertaken to employ all the labor-saving devices that come out of them. But a fresh labor-saving device introduced into an industry does not emancipate the laborers in that industry so much as it evicts them.

Of course no single labor-saving process is fatal; it brings on a period of unemployed labor and unemployed capital, but soon a new industry is devised which will put them both to work again, and a new commodity is thrown upon the market.

All might yet be well, and stability and comfort might again obtain, but for this: partly because of industrial ambitions and partly because the repressed creative impulse must break out somewhere, there will be a stream of further labor-saving devices in all industries, and the cycle will have to be repeated over and over. The result is an increasing disadjustment and instability.

The above quote comes from the “Introduction: A Statement of Principles” to the book, I’ll Take My Stand: the South and the Agrarian Tradition by Twelve Southerners. What is particularly intriguing about this quote, as well as the entire collection of essays, is that they were published in 1930, the year after the stock market crash, but more importantly eighty-four years ago—essentially at the elbow of the above graphs, before our world became so completely sold-out to our modern industrial progressivist culture.

This is the beauty of the wisdom of the great Distributists, like GK Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, and later Monsignor Luigi Ligutti (Rural Roads to Security) because they give us a glimpse into what life was like just as the curve was accelerating upwards, outside of and before  this soup, in which most of us have always lived.

So now eighty-four years later, as we ride the crest of this wave of progress, how do we respond? Some today are so enamored by, dare I say addicted to, the ever increasing enticements of our modern industrial progressivist culture that their answer is to turn the graph on its side. Viewing this accelerating, ever changing and ever precarious, economic culture as the inevitable trajectory of human ingenuity, dare I say human evolution, and, therefore, a thrilling blessing that must be freely embraced. They see no reason to question any of the demands of this culture; rather they preach that we are to trust our futures to the trajectory of progress. Our sad present plight is that none of the political parties vying for control of our government have anything to offer, except alternative ways to ride the accelerating economic wave.

However, the twelve Southern agrarian authors quoted earlier offer a different conclusion:

If a community, or a section, or a race, or an age, is groaning under industrialism, and well aware that it is an evil dispensation, it must find the way to throw it off. To think that this cannot be done is pusillanimous. And if the whole Community, section, race, or age thinks it cannot be done, then it has simply lost its political genius and doomed itself to impotence.

Have we lost our political genius and doomed ourselves, and our children, to economic impotence?

As I sit on my back porch, finishing my drink of choice, seven (the biblical number of perfection) alternative steps come to mind.

1) Focus on that which is Stable and Established

First, we should turn our focus away from the accelerating instability of our progressive culture and onto that which is stable and established. When we’re riding the ever-changing wave of economic progress, we can be dangerously comforted by the sight of thousands of others mindlessly riding along beside us. They coax us along, assuring us that there is no fear ahead, surely economic growth and human ingenuity will prevail in the end, and, of course, doesn’t God bless the “faithful”? But in His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told his followers to turn their focus away from the anxieties of their lives and onto “the birds of the air” and “the lilies of the field.”

To me, at the core of Distributist Theory is the desire to make every effort to tie our lives and those of our families to that which is stable and never changing; to that which has been there from the beginning and will always be there. Certainly, as baptized Christians, we are no longer citizens of this world, but mere sojourners, pilgrims here, passing through (Jn 17:14,16). Jesus, however, did not take us immediately out of this world, but left us here to be witnesses to the truth (Jn 17:15). This world, which is our God-given waystation on our journey toward our permanent home, was created good and for our enjoyment, as well as our sustenance (cf. James 1:17). When we pause to look into the night sky at a star, we should consider that, regardless of the accelerating changes around us, that star has not changed in position in the constellations since it was created in love by our Father God; that star was in that precise location for every person who has ever lived.

Last night, as I crossed the yard from the house to the chicken house, to shut the clucks in for the night, I glanced up and saw the clear night sky. Ursa Major was up to my left and further up to my right shone Jupitor. Scientific materialists will use every means available to study the stars, their origins and compositions, will use technology to get us closer and closer to them, but never in their lifetime, in a generation of lifetimes, will they discover the beauty and purpose of the stars and other celestial objects until they recognize that behind it all is the love of our Creator God for the highest in His Creation, Man. When young shepherd David sat three thousand years ago on a hillside tending his sheep, gazing upon Ursa Major and Jupiter, these gifts in the sky were doing the same thing that they should be doing for you and me today: drawing our thankful hearts upwards to our loving Creator God. In awe, he wrote these words:

When I look at thy heavens, the work of thy fingers,

the moon and the stars which thou hast established;

What is man that thou art mindful of him,

and the son of man that thou dost care for him?

Yet thou hast made him little less than God,

and dost crown him with glory and honor.

Thou hast given him dominion over the works of thy hands;

thou hast put all things under his feet,

All sheep and oxen,

and also the beasts of the field,

The birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,

whatever passes along the paths of the sea.

O Lord, our Lord,

how majestic is thy name in all the earth!

Psalm 8:3-9

As St. Bonaventure encouraged in his great treatise on the Journey of the Mind to God, we begin our journey toward intimacy with God by recognizing the vestiges of His creative love in the unchanging world around us.

This first step gives us a solid hand-hold for the steps that follow.

2) Reduce the Incessant Voices

We, second, need to examine and subsequently reduce the incessant voices in our lives. Who are we reading? To whom are we listening? What books, magazines, television shows, news broadcasts, web blogs, internet pundits, and radio commentators fill our every waking moment? Are they pulling us closer to God and independence, or enticing us to sell our souls along the accelerating path of economic progress and wealth? Are they encouraging us to trust our futures to the “certain” earnings of our investments, or are they helping us see that the more we detach ourselves from these vaporous promises, the freer we can enjoy  the blessings of the present moment.

I remember a Bill Cosby comedy routine when he described the crisis he caused in his family when he listened to the radio broadcast of “The Chicken Heart that Ate Up New York City.” His parents had left him home alone in his crib (a different time, a different world). Against his father’s specific orders, he snuck out of his crib and turned on the scary radio program, Lights Out. Once he had become totally terrified by the loud thumping chicken heart, which the narrator said was coming down his street and was now standing outside his door, young Bill spread Jello everywhere to slip up that monster! When his parents returned, hearing the loud thumping of the radio chicken heart, his father screamed, slipped, and nearly killed himself. When he asked his son what the @#$%& was going on, young Bill screamed in terror, “The chicken heart’s coming to eat us up!” His father’s solution? He turned the radio off! And in the sudden still silence of their home, Bill admitted sheepishly, “I never thought of that.”

How many of the voices in our lives do we just merely need to turn off, to make a true progress towards the stability and peace that God promises? Dorothy Day said it well seventy-three years ago in her Journal: “‘Turn off your radio, put away your daily paper. Read one review of events a week and spend time reading.’ Life would go on; other people would continue to ‘eat, sleep, love, worship, marry, have children, and somehow live in the midst of war, in the midst of anguish.’ Herself, she would pray, work, and read novels.”

Oh, and that means silencing those earbuds as we walk through nature so we can hear the beautiful unchanging symphony of the crickets and birds!

3) Reduce Financial Entanglements

Third, I would strongly suggest making what some might consider radical changes in your financial entanglements. Nothing ties us as individuals, as a family, and as a nation to the accelerating grip of our changing economic culture than our debts and our investments. The more we can get out of debt and, as the good Distributists have been telling us for years, situated securely on our own piece of land with our own home, no matter how small and meager, the more we can become detached from the effects of any craziness that might occur in our nation or world. Even if all the markets rebound, and our friends wag their fingers that we were foolish not to have placed all our eggs in the basket of progress, they actually have only moved one minute step half-way toward an unreachable goal of “increasing disadjustment and instability.” (Does anyone really have a workable solution to our national debt of seventeen trillion dollars, increasing at the unfathomable rate of more than a trillion a year?)

Recently, I left our rural land to drive into a large city that was surrounded by seemingly endless housing developments. It reminded me of the myth propagated in the mass media about over-population. All any one needs to do is fly cross country to see the endless miles of unpopulated territory to recognize that the true problem isn’t over-population. Rather, the true problem arises from what was assumed, for example, by all the candidates in all the parties in all the primaries of the 2012 presidential election: that every American should have the opportunity to attain the American dream; every American should be able to become a member of the “Middle Class” (in this supposedly “classless” culture). I will discuss this in more detail in a later chapter, but the more we—as individuals, families, and a culture—define the “American dream” as the attaining of more and more things (which requires more and more money), the more we have set our families and culture on an unsustainable death-spiral toward political and economic chaos. On this trajectory, the poverty level continually gets redefined upwards, and the expectations and “rights” increases proportionately. As a result, government subsidies and entitlement programs must increase—as of this writing, nearly half of the American population is living on government assistance. On this trajectory and under these assumptions, abortion, contraception, euthanasia, along with mood-altering drugs, even the endorsement of less child-producing relationships, become the necessary tools of those in power to control the population so that more and more can rise to the material level of the “Middle class.” In this quest, our government has amassed a seventeen trillion dollar deficit, increasing at an exponential rate, all to satisfy a material-hungry populace, the payment of which must pass on to our children and grand-children, after we have Pilate-like washed our hands of all guilt and passed on to the grave.

The only solution is for all in America, from the top down, to seek satisfaction in less; not just for the “haves” to share their wealth with the “have-nots”, but for the entire “American dream” to be redefined on a more realistic, sustainable scale. I have little hope that this will happen in America, for the last half of the last century was all about raising the expectations of everyone’s right to financial progress and independence. Once this cat is out of the bag, it’s impossible to put back, short of a re-setting of expectations through a major worldwide crisis, such as a depression or war, or through pervasive conversions of heart. There is little we can do to stop any of this, except as individuals and families, to consider “radical changes in [our] financial entanglements.”

One of the previously mentioned Southern agrarians wrote in his essay, “The Philosophy of Progress,” again in 1930:

One outstanding fact in industry at present is that, with the great increase in production and in new commodities, and with consumption coerced to the limit, there is a steady decrease in employment. Improvement in technology … “can mean only one thing. An equivalent tonnage of goods can be produced by a declining number of workers, and men must lose their jobs by the thousands—presently by the millions.”

This author was writing at the elbow of the curve, but we, now eighty-four years later, have only “progressed” further along the trajectory of his warnings. He had no idea how prophetic he was, for a couple of paragraphs later he commented:

Another world war, which the international struggle for markets suggests as not an unlikely prospect, would afford temporary ‘relief.’

World War II, coming eleven years later, did indeed provide some “temporary relief,” but the industrialization that ensued has never wained, nor has the escalating national debt or the oscillating unemployment. What major “relief” is around the bend in our future?

The more we can detach ourselves, adopting what our Lord called a “poverty of spirit,” from the attachments to the world bombarding us from every side, the more we can grow in the next step.

4) Practice Personal Subsidiarity

Next, I believe an amazing sense of freedom comes from practicing personal subsidiarity. In his introduction to Flee To The Fields: The Faith and Works of the Catholic Land Movement, Dr. Tobias Lanz gave the following helpful definition of social subsidiarity, “the cornerstone of Catholic social teaching”:

[S]ocial subsidiarity … holds that an individual should rely on the most basic levels of social and technical complexity to achieve his goals. Higher levels are called upon only when the lower echelon is insufficient to the task. Thus, by relying on the household, family, community, and nature’s bounty to provide as many basic needs as possible, people could free themselves from economic dependence and the political control of the plutocrats, and thereby regain a modicum of human dignity and freedom.

Applying this in personal practice, we can examine how we spend our money, where we place our investments, where we shop, and from where we purchase our goods, beginning first close to home and only then working outward.

Our little central Ohio village, initially a thriving canal town, then a farm community, and then the location of a nationally known manufacturer of handmade baskets, now sits in many ways like a ghost town. Nine out of ten stores sit vacant. Why? Because first the strip malls came, selling transported American goods at cheaper prices, which were supplanted by the super and mega stores, which were selling imported international goods at even cheaper prices, which have now been supplanted by the internet stores, which not only sell but originate from all around the globe, selling everything at even cheaper prices. How can anyone consider opening a small local store in our little backwoods village when anything any villager might want to grow, make, or sell can be purchased cheaper not just from a local mall but from the convenience of anyone’s home desktop computer? Yet, the more we can focus our lives locally, from our families into our communities supporting the efforts of our neighbors, the more we can contribute to the security of our local economies.

5) Live More Simply

I am hardly the first voice in the past two thousand years of Christianity to suggest that a life in the footsteps of Christ is a life of simplicity. This has been the constant message of the Church and the Saints, as well as spiritual writers, throughout the ages, ever since our Lord made this the center-piece of His New Law, His Sermon on the Mount. So to that extent, I hardly need to reiterate this, except maybe to emphasize that this is always a relative move—relative to one’s present state of life and to where we are at the present moment: Are our goals or objectives, our labor, our plans, our investments, our dreams all leading away from or toward a life of simplicity? Or are they in complicity with our culture driven by self-promotion, consumption, accumulation, and hoarding?

Early on, the apostle Paul warned his congregations to beware of the constant call away from the pure simplistic gospel of Christ: “But I fear lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve by his subtlety, so your mind should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ” (2 Cor 11:3, KJV). Indeed, the voices of temptation bombarding us from every direction are very subtle, and it is particularly interesting to note just how accurately the first graph in this chapter depicts the age-long battle of the enemy against simplicity. It has always been gradual and subtle, relying on the means and technologies of each age, but today the call away from simplicity toward progress is at such an accelerating pace that the mere suggestion of choosing a simpler life is a dangerous clarion cry of treason against our American right of upward mobility and the pursuit of the “American dream.”

Andrew Nelson Lytle, in his contribution to I’ll Take My Stand, made this challenge to agrarians, in 1930, to return to a simpler life:

To avoid the dire consequences and to maintain a farming life in an industrial imperialism, there seems to be only one thing left for the farmer to do, and particularly for the small farmer. Until he and the agrarian West and all the conservative communities throughout the United States can unite on some common political action, he must deny himself the articles the industrialists offer for sale. It is not so impossible as it may seem at first, for, after all, the necessities they machine-facture were once manufactured on the land, and as for the bric-a-brac, let it rot on their hands. Do what we did after the war [the Civil War] and the Reconstruction: return to our looms, our handcrafts, our reproducing stock. Throw out the radio and take down the fiddle from the wall. Forsake the movies for the play-parties and the square dances. And turn away from the liberal capons who fill the pulpits as preachers. Seek a priesthood that may manifest the will and intelligence to renounce science and search out the Word in the authorities.”

The economist, E.F. Shumaker is best know for his seminal work, Small is Beautiful. Much of what he wrote and believed is applicable to almost everything I’m trying to say in this book, though far less effective. I’d like to draw attention, though, to an article he wrote in 1976, five years after his conversion to the Catholic faith, entitled, “Technology & Political Change.” Consider the following of his thoughts:

As our modern society is unquestionably in crisis, there must be something that does not fit. If overall performance is poor despite brilliant technology, maybe the ‘system’ does not fit. Or maybe the technology itself does not fit present-day realities, including human nature. . . . I never cease to be astonished at the docility with which people— even those who call themselves Socialists or Marxists — accept technology, uncritically, as if technology were a part of Natural Law.

In other words, for centuries people have blamed the problems in the world on the governmental and political systems, whether communist, socialist, democratic, capitalist, libertarian, etc., while always presuming that the rising technologies in all these systems were good and beyond blame.

He continued:

People still say: it is not the technology; it is the ‘system’. Maybe a particular ‘system’ gave birth to this technology; but now it stares us in the face that the system we have is the product, the inevitable product, of the technology. As I compare the societies which appear to have different ‘systems’, the evidence seems to be overwhelming that where they employ the same technology they act very much the same and become more alike every day. Mindless work in office or factory is equally mindless under any system.

I suggest therefore that those who want to promote a better society, achieve a better system, must not confine their activities to attempts to change the ‘superstructure’— laws, rules, agreements, taxes, welfare, education, health services, etc. The expenditure incurred in trying to buy a better society can be like pouring money into a bottomless pit. If there is no change in the base—which is technology—there is unlikely to be any real change in the superstructure.”

What I consider particularly astounding about these comments is that they were said at the elbow of the graft before our modern lives became irrevocably entrenched in addictive technologies. In 1976 when Schumacher wrote, there were no personal or laptop computers; no cell or smart phones; no iPads, iPods, or even Walkmans (which were first released in 1978); no cable or satellite television; no social networks; no Nintindos, XBoxes, or Playstations; there were none of these technologies that demand our regular subscriptions, upgrades, and syncing.

Back in 1976, if Schumacher had unplugged his landline telephone or left his home, he would have been living in a world where he was essentially unreachable, and free. Can any of us go a month, a week, or even a day without any of these addictive technologies? The question is are we better and more holy people with these technologies, or because of them? Has our culture become more wholesome and godlike through the growth of these technologies? Or is it the system, politics, ideologies, and superstructure of our culture that is the problem? Schumacher would say it isn’t the system, it is the technologies that have enticed, captured, and carried us away.

I can still sense many complaining about such an uncalled for attack on these technologies, which have become so pervasive and necessary in our twenty-first century lives. But Jesus made a far more bold attack on the lifestyle of his first century audience:

If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.

Matthew 5:29,30

Why would Jesus make such brash statements to those He was trying to attract as disciples? He was using hyperbole to drive home to His simple audience how serious He was about the central issue of all His teaching: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). Theologians throughout the ages have tried to simplify, clarify, justify, and soften this statement, but the bottom line is, as emphasized later by Saint Paul, we are called to be holy:

Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, and make holiness perfect in the fear of God.

2 Corinthians 7:1

If Jesus emphasized that what we do with our hands and what we look at with our eyes is crucial to our growth in holiness, and consequently our relationship with Him, shouldn’t we now be just as vigilant with what we hold in our hands, put before our eyes, or plug into our ears?

Every step we make, even small ones, to simplify our lives—to examine critically how addicted we have become especially to communicative technologies—is an effort to get in step with our Lord. Every step in rebellion against the marketeers who claim that happiness comes only with the accumulation of unnecessary stuff and against the politicians who warn that the salvation of our economy and the “world as we know it” depends upon this, is a step of freedom from the frantic clutches of today’s modern industrial progressivist culture.

6) Consider a More Self-Sufficient Life on the Land

Steps one through five are all in line with the teachings of our Lord and His Church, and, admittedly, each requires willful sacrifice empowered by grace. Step Six, however, is only for “those to whom this has been given.” This is what Jesus said about those of His followers called to the celibate life (cf, Mt 19:11f). The same is true, though, for those called to live a self-sufficient life on the land. I hesitate to include this in the list, because indeed not all are called to this, maybe only a few, but there was a time, back down and along the steep curve of that graph, when the majority of people in this world were self-sufficient or at least trying to be. They admittedly led a simpler life with no thoughts or interest in upward mobility. As Lytle also wrote, “A farm is not a place to grow wealthy; it is a place to grow corn.” It is a place to slowly over time become free. Lytle continued his challenge to those called to an agrarian life:

Any man who grows his own food, kills his own meat, takes wool from his lambs and cotton from his stalks and makes them into clothes, plants corn and hay for his stock, shoes them at the crossroads blacksmith shop, draws milk and butter from his cows, eggs from his pullets, water from the ground, and fuel from the woodlot, can live in an industrial world without a great deal of cash. Let him diversify, but diversify so that he may live rather than he may grow rich.

As mentioned in an earlier chapter, the Rt. Rev. Msgr. Luigi Ligutti made much the same claims, more specifically from a Catholic Distributist perspective, exactly ten years later in his important book, Rural Roads to Security: America’s Third Struggle for Freedom. There is far too much good stuff in his book to quote here, so let one quote suffice:

To have economic independence a man must be in a position to leave one job and go to another; he must have enough savings of some kind to exist for a considerable time without accepting the first job offered. Thus the peasant, for all his poverty and the exploitation which he suffers, is relative to his own needs still the freest man in central Europe. The fact that he can exist by his own labor on his own piece of land gives him an independence which every dictatorial regime, except the Russian perhaps, has been forced to respect.

But the industrial worker who has a choice between working in one factory and not working at all, the white collar intellectuals who compete savagely for the relatively few private positions and posts in the bureaucracy—these are the people who live too precariously to exercise their liberties or to defend them. They have no savings. They have only their labor to sell, and there are very few buyers of their labor.

The more I see of Europe the more deeply convinced do I become that the preservation of freedom in America, or anywhere else, depends upon maintaining and restoring for the great majority of individuals the economic means to remain independent individuals. The greatest evil of the modern world is the reduction of the people to a proletarian level by destroying their savings, by depriving them of private property, by making them the helpless employees of private monopoly or of government monopoly. At that point they are no longer citizens. They are a mob.

In his book, Msgr. Ligutti offered many hopeful and practical suggestions on helping the poor gain dignity. Instead of putting the poor and unemployed on welfare and food-stamps—which too often, even to this day, encourages many to lose their desire to better themselves and seek employment—he outlined a quite workable plan to help the poor become self-sufficient homesteaders on their own small piece of land. Before his proposal could barely be tested, though, his book was shelved and forgotten, because, in the next year came Pearl Harbor, and the “relief” that was prophesied by that earlier Southern agrarian.

The hope and practical solutions of Msgr. Ligutti still hold true, however, and given the fulfillment of so many of the Distributist warnings of the 1930s and 40s—and to an accelerated extent that none of them could have imagined—the challenge is still extended to any of us “to whom this has been given” to follow our vocation to self-sufficient simplicity.

At this point, some readers might be wondering whether I consider myself one of those “to whom this has been given.” I can’t deny that, even in the time it has taken to write and rewrite this book of collected articles, I have struggled over this question. And maybe by the time this book has landed in your hands, I will have been led to an even different conclusion.

What I have come to realize is how much this is more a corporate than an individual decision. If you are an individual hermit, with few if any attachments, you are, therefore, free to discern for yourself and initiate all the radical changes necessary to live a self-sufficient life off the grid. But, just as in the advice given by Christ in Matthew 19, if you are married, and have children and grandchildren, the permutations of attachments and responsibilities makes these kind of counter-cultural changes exponentially more difficult—and specifically the means of discerning God’s call to this vocation.

As for Marilyn and me, we have progressed an amazing distance down the road of self-sufficiency, but extended family and business responsibilities, as well as my own waffling convictions, leave the trajectory of our self-sufficiency in the hands of God.

7) Make More Time for God

Given all the changes suggested above, we can now do that which is most important: Make more time to talk with and listen to God. By focusing on that which is more stable, and not forever moving and elusive; by shutting our minds to the thousands of conflicting, clamoring voices around us; by freeing ourselves from the clutching control and anxieties of debt and unsure investments; by investing our lives in the immediate world around us—the specific world into which God has planted us; by choosing to make steps toward a life of gospel simplicity; and, to those “to whom this has been given,” by seeking a life of self-sufficiency on one’s own piece of land—by focusing on these things, we can become freer to commune with God in prayer; to hear His voice in liturgy; to receive His grace and forgiveness—His very self—in the sacraments; and the more effectively we can become the persons He created in His Image.

As Saint Paul promised: “Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:6-7).

As I prepare to retire from our back porch for the night, I think it’s important to conclude this chapter with a disclaimer; in fact, the same one that Saint Paul gave: “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Phil 3:12). I am certainly far from completing any of these seven steps, particularly the last, but my wife and I together have come to believe that these are important goals for us as a family. So pray for us, and we will pray for you.

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