Good Policies Begin with Fundamental Values
What makes for a vital life? More to our NCRLC mission, what makes for a vital Catholic rural life? This is a heavy question and will require some heavy lifting to answer. No doubt it will take a series of blogs to do it justly.
I’m pushed to think about this as we prepare for a second attempt to get a new Farm Bill reauthorized by Congress. Members of Congress failed to act last year when the 2008 Farm Bill expired, so now we’re at it again.
Despite its singular title as the “Farm Bill”, this comprehensive piece of legislation covers more than production agriculture and gets into conservation, nutrition, trade, food aid, rural development, renewable energy, and the list goes on.
Not all of those concerns relate directly to life on the farm or even rural communities. But this piece of legislation does set the overall tone for rural America. The policies that are voted on by our elected officials determine the programs that shape the countryside. This only happens every 5 to 6 years, so we have to be ready when this discussion comes along.
The trick for us at Catholic Rural Life, and probably for many family farm groups, is to articulate our principles clearly enough so that these get translated into the policies and programs that are good for rural America. Well, not just good, but vital.
The challenge is to influence the push-and-pull of what “good” means. For American farming, like the wider society in general, the “good” is couched in terms of economic virtues: efficient, productive, competitive and profitable. And indeed, these are important aspects to maintain a strong agricultural and food system.
But these economic values can become the “chilling virtues of industrial agriculture” as critical observers have said in the past about what is happening in rural America. The principle is succinctly, if heartlessly, stated as “get big or get out” — and strictly reduces farming to a bottomline business rather than a way of life.
Advances in scientific and technical knowledge — improved seeds, new genetics, sophisticated equipment and logistics — made this possible and perhaps even inevitable. But the price of these technological developments was to alter our human value system. It had to, because science and technology was affecting not just agriculture, but all forms of business and industry. The agrarian spirit of rural life was now becoming overwhelmed by the Technological Man.
So I wonder: Is this the “good” we were looking for and hoping for? What does Catholic rural life mean if we don’t fully embrace the economic and industrial “virtues” that Big Ag sees as essential for success? And more deeply concerning, why are some enthralled to the exclusion of all else?
In subsequent blogs, I will continue to address this question of how to reclaim some of the foundational values that make for a vital life. Beyond the value of material goods, do we not need spiritual and religious values as well? Accepting that is certainly the case, we might well ask: Is rural culture where such values can still be found?
Or are we in an era where foundational values have now passed? I’m thinking these values have to do with a communal ethic (in contrast to individualism), stewardship of the land (in contrast to intensive resource use), and reverence for agricultural work (in contrast to industrialization).
Are the ideals rural America once lived by now too difficult to live by? Do we still value moderation and simplicity? Who among us is willing to hold true to a sacrificial life?
As the planting season progresses, I’ll continue to share some thoughts about these heavy questions. I welcome your comments to help in this heavy lifting!
NCRLC Policy Coordinator