Monday, November 14, 2022

Mending Wall

I have mentioned before that Robert Frost taught my grandfather 9th-grade English at Pinkerton Academy 1910-11. Gramps wasn't impressed, accurately assessing that Frost didn't much like teaching 9th-grade boys. One sees his point. His teacher left for England soon after, where he fell in with nature poets there who were called the Dymock poets. He had been writing poetry before this, and might well have been working on "Mending Wall" while teaching young Master Smith at PA. The analysis I linked to is simply the first one I half-liked while browsing them. I am not going to analyze it here, just use it as a jumping off spot for talking about libertarianism. 

New England, especially Northern New England, has long been known for libertarianism - and yet also for much more public cooperation than other parts of the country, all the way back to colonial times. We built more churches, schools, roads, harbors, bridges, lighthouses, mills, meeting houses - and were willing to tax and demand labor from each other about this. I have usually described this as a devotion to the town (or very early, to the congregation), rather than any larger grouping such as even a county, but also not a valorisation of the individual. They were small-government, but not no-government people. It is ebbing away, but persisted for centuries, up until my own adulthood.  You can still find it, but mostly only in comparison to the rest of the country at this point. I worked for the State of NH, and by the end of my career I had seen that bureaucracy grow in pointlessness and inefficiency.

Yet the Free Staters who came to NH have not always found the sympathy they expected here. Their choice of the porcupine as a symbol is revealing. It says "leave me alone," and I think that is what libertarianism means in most of the country. But here we think more along the lines of self-reliance, that is, your responsibility to take care of yourself and your own rather than the responsibility that others have to leave you alone.  That's here too, and sometimes the "respect for privacy" can border on neglect of neighbors having trouble such as wives being beaten, or negative externalities from slaughterhouses being ignored. But it's not like we don't understand the premise of minding one's own business. It's just in second place rather than first more often up here than other libertarian places. The Upper South and the Empty Quarter would be the other main American examples.

What's different is the (ahem) unnoticed misplaced optimism of the rest of you, who seem to think that if we are just left alone, things will work out fine. They won't work out fine, no matter how many small-ball counterexamples you can find. When you build a City on a Hill it starts falling apart the next day, and requires effort, cooperative effort to keep up. This used to be admired, as in the early years of the American Republic other states actively looked to Massachusetts for how to self-govern, as their smaller places had never done this before. (My quick reading of what happened after is that slavery poisoned everything, even independence. It forced governance up to the county and then state level to protect propertied interests. We think of States Rights as small government and federalism now, but Goffstown didn't much hold with what Concord told them to do either, never mind Washington.)

Frost always said he was a bad farmer, but the evidence is otherwise.  He was shrewd and hardworking and the financial records of his years at that task look pretty good. In "Mending Wall" we see the cooperative self-reliance at work.  One doesn't need a lot of interaction and cooperation, but one does need some, and we can demand it of the other. Because... once the wall is built it's not going to stay built. It will need maintenance every year. It is interesting that Frost himself questions whether the job still needs to be done, now that no cows will invade the other property, but in the end he goes along, agreeing that somehow it does still need to be done, even if we can't quite see why. 

Update: Yes, Massachusetts has largely gotten untracked on this after an excellent start of building an independent American economy and intellectual society so that we no longer had to look to London and Europe. The rich of all the regions sent their children to study in Europe, but Boston broke away before the Coastal South and even New York. It was a great idea, but perhaps they just got too full of themselves.  SW Connecticut is not really part of New England anyway.


Anonymous said...

Libertarians are basically thieves of the common wealth. Still all kinds of approaches are useful, if only to find out what works. Libertarians are helpless in the face of a pandemic. We have found that out.

Apropos the poem, neither I or my daughter have ever locked our doors. Now we live in an area that was once mostly hippies, and no one locked their doors back then.

Honesty. ;)

Christopher B said...

Taking a tangent from your suggestion that the definition has changed, another explanation might be the Free Staters, and others, are back-projecting the label libertarian on the local self-reliance exhibited throughout many areas of the US in order to appropriate an image of libertarianism being present at the Founding, when it is actually a much later development. I can attest that the Upper Midwest is just as thick as New England with civic betterment organizations, co-operatives, and churches, as well as public, private, and parochial schools of all levels. Wisconsin, also birthplace of the Republican Party, and Chicago were as much included in the Progressive's "Good Government" movement as Boston and Pennsylvania.

As Meredith Wilson, born 1902 in Mason City, IA, put it in song in the mid-1950s...

We can be cold
As our falling thermometer in December
If you ask about our weather in July.
And we're so by God stubborn
We can stand touchin' noses
For a week at a time
And never see eye-to-eye.
But we'll give you our shirt
And a back to go with it
If your crops should happen to die.

I do agree that slavery, and even more Jim Crow, gave the philosophy that local areas should be largely self-governing a bad odor, as well as giving people with a bent for organizing other folk's lives the tools and justification to override many mores and arrangements they found distasteful from afar. It should also be noted a lot of those same folks bristle at the suggestion that some of their own local values should give way to judgements that are expressly reserved for the national government.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

The Upper Midwest was also Yankeeland in its founding, even though lots of Germans and Scandinavians came in early. Ditto the Pacific Northwest. Michigan and Arkansas started up about the same time, but Michigan built many more schools.

Grim said...

"One doesn't need a lot of interaction and cooperation, but one does need some, and we can demand it of the other. Because... once the wall is built it's not going to stay built. It will need maintenance every year."

The word "demand" is carrying a lot of weight here. I suppose I could "demand" things of my neighbors, but I think it wouldn't work, and fixing the wall would suddenly become the last thing on their agenda. So in a sense I 'can' demand the thing; but in a sense I can't demand it, because the very act of issuing such a demand undermine any hope of the thing getting done.

Now if, like Frost, I asked my neighbor, he'd probably help me out. He's a pretty good guy. We do stuff together every now and then, from fixing the road (the county hasn't been out here in years) to removing dangerous trees.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

If you don't voluntarily enter into a society, or at least a mentality, where you can demand it of others, then you don't have nice things.

Neither Frost nor his neighbor could actually compel the other, no. We have a percentage of people up here who would just refuse, and be proud of that. But if it gets to be too many, things stop working pretty quickly. We sign on for duty out of overall generosity, because we know there are days we won't be generous. But the implied contract is very strong and is the foundation for prosperity and likely the low violent crime rate as well. I also think the rest of the country doesn't like to admit how much of this they absorbed in order to build America at all. It has become fashionable to sullenly resent it.

Grim said...

The ability to reject 'demands' being made upon you is itself a nice thing, though. There are lots of people who want to make demands on your time, energy, and so forth; it's beneficial that our social contract allows us to assert limits on these, a space that is our business and not someone else's.

Indeed, the Frost poem is easy to interpreted in terms of handling one's own business than being subject to the demands of others. Frost makes much of the fact that each of them only handles the stones that have fallen off onto their own property, with no accounting being made of whether this is a fair division of labor: it's just your bad luck if more stones fell your way this year. Frost goes on to wonder about the purpose of the fence, trying to get his neighbor to explore the issue, but his neighbor is inclined to rebuild the fence whether or not it serves any purpose beyond the one his father taught him: "Good fences make good neighbors," i.e., it's important to have this wall between us so it will be clear where my claims end and your own can begin.

Frost in the poem presents this as unimaginative, but it is exactly the kind of inherited social understanding of the Yankee culture that you want to talk about. Saying that it is the unquestioned heritage from his father, which he 'won't go beyond,' is a way of saying that it is that kind of cultural heritage; and, further, that his neighbor(s) are culturally inclined to conservatism about the lessons contained in that heritage. You may be justly proud of it yourself.