July 15, 2012
They say that farmers are natural defenders of strong property rights. Who is this “they” who say, you might ask, especially if you are at all inclined to lean leftward, and how dare “they” assert that there is anything “natural” about private property? Well, your Thornapple blogger is here to offer a partial answer to your questions on this fine July morning, though I’m staying away from the ontological mysteries like “Who are the they that say in ‘They say’” and “What is the it that gives in ‘What gives’?” If you woke wanting to know why there is something rather than nothing, go read Heidegger.
As usual, I’m just into stating the obvious. Like, if you’ve got a crop in the ground, you don’t want a bunch of punks riding BMX motocross through it. So you run out and say, “Hey, you punks! Scram! This is private property.” And if necessary you take measures starting with the “Posted” sign that always seemed rather obscure to me: Posted, yes, but as what? These measures escalate to reliance on the local sheriff or the proverbial shotgun. And if you are raised in farming country, the progression from “Hey, you punks!” to shotgun and sheriff could well seem quite a natural one.
Of course if you aren’t raised in farming country, it may never occur to you that the “Posted” sign means “No trespassing.” And if you lean at least as far leftward as Woody Guthrie it may instead occur to you that on the other side of that sign, it don’t say nothin’. And then you may think, “That side was made for you ‘n me.”
Now just as an aside I have to make an observation for which I have absolutely no supporting evidence. That being, I doubt seriously that our Woody would have been running BMX motocross through anyone’s soybeans, him having a natural respect for the labor that some poor farmer very much like himself would have sunk into planting that soybean crop. So while Woody might have camped out on the edge of the field or even helped himself to a watermelon that the farmer quite obviously could spare, he, his impeccable left-leaning street cred notwithstanding, would have respected the farmer’s natural property rights, these being the security of his crop and the right to dispose of it’s full commercial value as he saw fit.
Now both regular readers of the Thronapple blog may have noticed something about the last paragraph, and you may be itching to make a side point of your own: Notice how the farmer “naturally” took on the male persuasion in your extended observation, Thompson. Wasn’t it just last week that you were cautioning us against such a presumption? Wasn’t it you who was moralizing about how lots of farmers around the globe are women?
And to this I would sheepishly have to admit. Which brings me to a lefty feminist book from a decade back that I happened to be reading last week. It was Martha Nussbaum’s Women and Development. It’s a fine book, and Nussbaum does a truly admirable job of showing us how poor women get an even shorter end of the stick than poor men in the developing world. And then she goes on to create some powerful philosophical observations about how we can correct this injustice. I’m all for this I should definitely add, but then there’s this little place where Nussbaum confesses puzzlement as to why the poor women she was working with in rural India seem to place so much importance on the security of their property rights. It just didn’t square up with her generally left-leaning feminist way of seeing things.
And that’s what I’m here to sort out: They’re farmers, Martha!
Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University