The Idea of a Local Economy


Excerpts from The Idea of a Local Economy
Orion Magazine (2001)
Wendell Berry

A total economy is one in which everything—“life forms,” for instance,—or the “right to pollute” is “private property” and has a price and is for sale. In a total economy significant and sometimes critical choices that once belonged to individuals or communities become the property of corporations.

A total economy, operating internationally, necessarily shrinks the powers of state and national governments, not only because those governments have signed over significant powers to an international bureaucracy or because political leaders become the paid hacks of the corporations but also because political processes—and especially democratic processes—are too slow to react to unrestrained economic and technological development on a global scale. And when state and national governments begin to act in effect as agents of the global economy, selling their people for low wages and their people’s products for low prices, then the rights and liberties of citizenship must necessarily shrink. A total economy is an unrestrained taking of profits from the disintegration of nations. communities, households, landscapes, and ecosystems. It licenses symbolic or artificial wealth to “grow” by means of the destruction of the real wealth of all the world…

Aware of industrialism’s potential for destruction, as well as the considerable political danger of great concentrations of wealth and power in industrial corporations, American leaders developed, and for a while used, the means of limiting and restraining such concentrations, and of somewhat equitable distributing wealth and property. The means were: laws against trusts and monopolies, the principle of collective bargaining, the concept of one-hundred-percent parity between the land-using and the manufacturing economies, and the progressive income tax. And to protect domestic producers and production capacities it is possible for governments to impose tariffs on cheap imported goods. These means are justified by the government’s obligation to protect the lives, livelihoods, and freedoms of its citizens. There is, then, no necessity or inevitability requiring our government to sacrifice the livelihoods or our small farmers, small business people, and workers, along with our domestic economic independence to the global “free market.” But now all of these means are either weakened or in disuse. The global economomy is intended as a means of subverting them.

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