Barbers, bison meat, and the invisible hand

I was back in my shiny new persona as salesperson last week, driving out to all the dude ranches around Bandera in hopes of scaring up a market for the hundreds and hundreds of pounds of bison meat we will soon have for sale. Reaction was generally favorable, despite the fact that I didn’t have some basic information at hand, like the prices we’ll be charging.

Aside from feeling like a dummy, a phony, and a bat-brained loony, I had fun. First, there’s very little that I enjoy more than looking at other people’s property. Second, I got to drive down some Hill Country roads I hadn’t been on before and go through the Hill Country State Natural Area, a secluded 5,000-plus-acre park dappled with beautiful blooming grasses and gayflowers, stands of hardwoods, and shining creeks. The third fun thing was getting out and meeting people—not a pleasure my usually introverted self would have anticipated. Our pattern when we go to Madroño has been to get there and dig in, not coming out unless we need something really important, like the newspaper or beer or ice cream or antihistamines. Now, for the first time, we’re starting to meet our neighbors. We’re starting—just barely—to find our way into the community.

I’ve also been rereading Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow: The Life Story of Jayber Crow, Barber, of the Port William Membership, as Written by Himself, in which community is a central concern. (The book has easily reaffirmed its place on my top-ten favorite novels list.) So this week “community” seems to be the theme that wants to beat me over the head until I wake up and pay attention.

As you might guess from the subtitle, Jayber Crow concerns a small-town Kentucky barber whose life spans most of the twentieth century. Orphaned at an early age, Jayber is raised by a loving great-aunt and -uncle, who die when he is ten. He is sent to an orphanage and finally, a dozen years later, makes his way back to Port William to become its barber, grave-digger, and church janitor. A philosophical-minded bachelor, Jayber watches the community (that’s a map of the whole fictitious area above) over the course of several wars and the encroachment of highways and agricultural technology. Although he witnesses and endures great suffering, at the end he can say truthfully that his book is about Heaven because of the profound love the community bears for itself and for its place, both temporal and spatial.

In part, this love manifests itself in Port William’s economic life. When Jayber returns to Port William, he finds that the town’s previous barber has left, not being able to support his family on his shop’s limited income. Jayber is immediately taken by an old friend to see the town banker, who in introducing himself says, “I’m glad to know you. I knew your mother’s people.” He offers to loan Jayber the money to buy the old barbershop; Jayber describes the terms of the loan as “fair enough, but very strict in what he would expect of me.”

Jayber adds, “You will appreciate the tenderness of my situation if I remind you that I had managed to live for years without being known to anybody. And that day two men who knew who and where I had come from had looked at me face-on, as I had not been looked at since I was a child…. I felt revealed, as if to buy the shop I had to take off all my clothes.” Going into business requires him to become a part of the community, to care about its constituent parts in order to make his own way in the world.

I had imagined that this community might make Adam Smith, the patron saint of free-market economics, sneer: it lives within the limits of the land’s fertility, repairs what is broken, patches what is torn, and remains deeply suspicious of debt. Its citizens are generous to those in need, recognizing that they cannot prosper individually without prospering corporately. The antihero of the novel, Troy Chattam, is an ambitious young farmer who contemptuously rejects the old-fashioned ways of his father-in-law; Troy’s mantra is “modernize, mechanize, specialize, grow.” He goes into debt to buy new machinery and listens to agribusiness experts who tell him to use every bit of soil on the place: “never let a quarter’s worth of equity stand idle.” He seems to be a firm believer in the “invisible hand,” famously posited by Smith in his magnum opus The Wealth of Nations, which supposedly guides markets to produce the highest quality goods for the lowest price to the benefit of both producers and buyers; this is what we used to call the American way. Like that of the city for which he was named, however, Troy’s is not a story with a happy ending.

But wait—why in heaven’s name is Adam Smith suddenly part of this conversation? Because I, despite my shocking ignorance of economics, just read Adam Gopnik’s fascinating article on Smith in the October 18 issue of The New Yorker. In it Gopnik argues that Smith’s real question “was not the economist’s question, How do we get richer or poorer?, or even the philospher’s question, How should one live? It was the modern question, Darwin’s question: How do you find and make order in a world without God?”

Gopnik is ostensibly reviewing Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life, by Nicholas Phillipson, but he is really using Phillipson’s book as a jumping-off point for his own meditations on economics and community. Readers of The Wealth of Nations tend to ignore Smith’s earlier The Theory of Moral Sentiments, but by doing so, according to Gopnik, we “lobotomize our own understanding of modern life, making economics into a stand-alone, statistical quasi-science rather than, as Smith intended, a branch of the humanities.” In order for humanity to live in community, Smith posits the necessity of “an impartial observer who lives within us, and whom we invent to judge our actions.” Without this imaginative capacity, a market economy can’t exist; unless we can put ourselves in the place of our fellows, we can’t imagine what they might need. “For Smith, the plain-seeing Scot,” writes Gopnik, “the market may not have been the most elegant instance of human sympathy, but it’s the most insistent: everybody has skin in this game. It can proceed peaceably only because of those moral sentiments, those imaginary internal judges.”

Unfortunately, those imaginary internal judges recede into the background when producers band together in order to eliminate competition and control prices; according to Phillipson (via Gopnik), Smith believed that “the market moves toward monopoly; it is the job of the philosopher to define, and of the sovereign state to restore, free play.” The market works toward the benefit of all only when it is broadly just—defined (by me) as being in the long-term interests of both producer and consumer. When the scenario Berry imagines in Jayber Crow comes to pass—when economic and business practices fray the fabric of community rather than protect it—then we live in epically tragic times, like those of Troy. When we find communities in economic disarray, then, according to the father of free-market economics, imaginations incapable of sympathy are at the root of the problem.

Of course, this is a pretty self-serving position, since we at Madroño are about to go head-to-head with such giants as H-E-B, who can charge much less for bison meat than we can. But I honestly believe that the long-term health of H-E-B depends on a diverse economic ecosystem in which the building of community—which requires a mutually sympathetic imagination—will rest on the flexible backs of small, dynamic businesses. Which maybe, with the help of our local community, we will become.

What we’re reading
Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow: The Life Story of Jayber Crow, Barber, of the Port William Membership, as Written by Himself
Martin: Bill Minutaglio, In Search of the Blues: A Journey to the Soul of Black Texas

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2 Responses to Barbers, bison meat, and the invisible hand

  1. DFagan says:

    Love this old video of Iris, Emmy Lou, and Jerry Douglas. Such a perfect finish to your lovely tale this week. Thanks.

    Makes me want to see that great play of the same name, ya know?

  2. Brad Kik says:

    Great song and great post. Thanks. I hope you'll keep diving deeper into this!

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