The reactions to this piece, coupled with my experiences of the past few days, which I spent in the Blue Ridge Mountains of deepest, darkest Virginia, have me thinking along the lines of this piece once again – but not in a purely romantic or inter-gender relations way.
A few days separated from one’s usual surroundings, most emphatically including all his “stuff,” can result in a massive realignment of his perspectives. Mind you, I like “stuff.” I certainly own a lot of it, as the regular financial extractions I undergo for its repair surely remind me. However, it takes up space, both physical and mental. I have to stay on top of its maintenance. I also have to remember how to use it. (Sadly, I’ve lost the product manual for my Qwert Iggle and can’t find a copy on the Web. No more emu juice with my Cheerios®. Sigh.) And in the strict sense of “required for survival,” I don’t need most of it.
My host these past few days, whom I’ll call Joe, has a lot less “stuff” than I, and he gets by much better than I do. Indeed, Joe designed and built his own home in the mountains – no small feat, especially as there was no access road at the time and Joe’s plot is so sharply sloped that I had difficulty ascending it on foot. He also wired, plumbed, fenced, and gated it. I have no doubt that despite any and all difficulties he could and would do so again, from scratch and Home Depot, were circumstances to demand it.
Joe’s place is not some sort of primitive hunter’s lodge, either. It’s a comfortably furnished home comparable in its amenities to a typical middle-class suburban home you would find in less sharply sloped America. His main building is a bit smaller than most, but that’s nicely offset by his three satellite buildings – his workshop, his wife’s workshop, and his guest cottage – which Joe also designed and built himself.
The typical example of the contemporary cults of “preppers” and “survivalists” would fall to their knees in awe at Joe’s achievement. And well they should. It’s a testament to what a determined man capable of mastering the skills normally left to “specialists” can do with the application of sufficient physical and mental effort. It’s an absurdity of Brobdinganagian dimensions that Joe thinks I’d do just fine on his mountain – I, who recently had to call a master plumber for instruction on how to replace the flush lever on a toilet.
I don’t imagine that most of Joe’s contemporaries could hope to replicate Joe’s achievement. He put a lot of time, money, and effort into it, to say nothing of the array of skills he had to acquire. (Plus the need to go armed at all times; the Blue Ridge Mountains weren’t free of predators back then. Nor are they today.) But setting that undertaking alongside my habitual reliance on “specialists” is a humbling experience.
I’ve accepted the division-of-labor economy. Indeed, without it I’d be a starving wretch; the only things I can do that are worth anyone’s valuta are software and fiction. (What, you think the crap I post here is worth anything? Millions of people worldwide are doing the very same thing as we speak. Some of them do it better than I. Virtually none of us get paid.) But the simplicity available to Joe is something I envy greatly. He needs absolutely no one for anything. All his associations are by choice; none arise from necessity. What would you give to be able to say the same?
Simplicity is, quite ironically, one of the most complex conditions a contemporary American can contemplate. Try to imagine how you would contrive to live well, according to your personal standards, with no need for the support of specialists in dozens of fields.
Now, as to the title of this essay. A “bad buy,” by most people’s understanding, is an expenditure whose consequences are “not worth it.” In some sense, no element in the fantastic array of devices that surround me and support my existence is a “bad buy.” Indeed, I rely on them for many daily “necessities.” But in aggregate, coupled to my own specialization, they’ve rendered me dependent on innumerable others to whom I must regularly pay obeisance in Federal Reserve Notes. Most of those others have nothing else in common with me. I wouldn’t think of inviting them to a party; if I did, they’d be shocked right out of their skivvies.
On those occasions when I desire merely to sit and think, which are more frequent than ever, those dependencies can be irritating in the extreme. For example, I need to invoke the services of three specialists today, owing to conditions that arose while I was in Virginia. I can’t spend the day merely contemplating how to proceed with my current novel-in-progress. Like it or not, I must open my home to others – don’t get me wrong; I greatly appreciate their attention and pay for it willingly – and await their verdicts about various matters pertaining to plumbing, basement drainage, and how to repair certain of my mechanical assistants.
And then there’s this:
“That’s the whole bill of lading?” Adam Grenier said.
Martin nodded. “As near as we can figure it. You said twelve thousand pounds was the limit, right?”
Grenier nodded. “For the Guppy. If you think you’ll need more lift—”
“We won’t,” Althea said. “That list ciphers out to about ten thousand, eight hundred.” She glanced up at the craft they were chartering. “She seems awfully small for that kind of load, Adam.”
“You might be surprised,” Grenier said. “That’s her safe rating with all possible hazards taken into account, including things like short-field takeoffs and landings. Her lift rating is about fourteen five, and her structural rating is higher still. But ten eight is severe enough, thanks. With all the miles she’s got on her, I don’t like to tax her.” He glanced back and forth between them. “You’re both coming along?”
“Of course,” Althea said. “That pile of crap isn’t going to do much on its own.”
“That adds about three-fifty to the load, so we’re just over eleven thousand. Look,” Grenier said, “it’s better to be safe than sorry. Planes have fallen out of the sky for being overloaded. None of mine, but all the same, if you can avoid expanding this list any further, I’d strongly advise it.” He awarded her a wholly artificial smile.
Something’s going on here, Grandpere.
—Almost certainly, Al. His father was a better, more pleasant man, and he was never this accommodating.
So how do I find out what?
—I have no idea.
Damn. I suppose I’ll have to ride it to the end, won’t I?
—What if you retreat to your earlier plan?
Martin said we wouldn’t. In front of all our neighbors, at that. I can’t make a liar out of him.
“When do you think you could fit us in?” she said.
Grenier waved unconcern. “You get your stuff together, get it over here, and I’ll take care of the rest. There’s enough slack in the scheduling to squeeze in one flight just about any time from now through November. Oh, and don’t worry about the loading. My crew will see to all of that. They understand the issues quite well.”
Martin’s eyes narrowed. “What makes you think we wouldn’t?”
A quick flicker of the eyelids was all the reaction Adam Grenier produced. It was enough.
“Well, maybe you do,” he said. “But do you want the responsibility for a possible midpoint fuel shortfall because of unbalanced aerodynamics? For a plane that has to turn around before it’s delivered its cargo? If you load, it’s on your shoulders. If my guys do it...?” He shrugged.
We’re being set up for a fall.
She glanced at her husband. He shook his head microscopically.
“Okay,” she said. “We’ll be back in touch when we’ve assembled all this junk and have arranged to truck it over.” She stuck out a hand. “Thanks for being so helpful, Adam.”
His plastic smile was still fixed in place. “Not at all.”
* * *As they exited the tree-lined corridor from the commercial strip and turned onto the pathway to Morelon House, Althea halted her husband and turned to face him. “I can’t figure out what he’s planning, can you?”
Martin gazed at her ruefully. “I’ve been thinking about that and nothing else, love. But I’m dead certain it’s nothing we’d enjoy.”
“So what now?”
He grimaced. “I don’t know. Postpone the trip, for sure. How to get our initial load up to Thule? Frankly, I don’t think we have much choice. Our clan had heavy-lift capacity at one point, didn’t it?”
She nodded. “Yeah, but we sold the plane when Adam’s dad set up shop here. Charisse said she was happy to get rid of it. It made more sense to hire it out, so we wouldn’t have to maintain a plane and train pilots.”
She glanced at the entrance to Morelon House. The old mansion looked as sturdy as ever. It presented an appearance of immutable strength to all who saw it. Yet it had begun to seem to her that the clan had undermined that strength in several ways, with several decisions. None of them had been fatal; indeed, when each was made, it had appeared to be the obvious choice. Yet in combination, they had rendered Clan Morelon massively dependent upon the wills and skills of a multitude of outsiders...persons who might not be as available or dependable as one would hope.
—That’s the downside of the division of labor, Al.
Yeah. I can see that, Grandpere. But how could we have avoided it?
—By resisting all the temptations to specialize and to make use of specialists. By purchasing absolute self-sufficiency at the price of economic advantage. Which, incidentally, no clan or society known to history has ever managed to do.
The incentives are too strong, aren’t they?
—Judge for yourself, dear. Put yourself in Charisse’s place at the point when Jack Grenier moved into the area and started offering his services around. Would you have done as she did, knowing only what she did at the time?
Probably. If there’s a lesson in this—
—If there is, Al, no one has ever drawn it. The division of labor is the one and only path toward general prosperity. It can go to an incredible depth. A frightening depth. And it is utterly reliant upon the character and good will of the specialists. Let one critical specialty be corrupted by political forces, or conceive of a grudge against some other group, or even decide that it can rape its customers without fear of reprisal, and the destruction spreads faster than anyone can act to check it.
[From Freedom’s Scion]
No human society has ever successfully resisted the division of labor...and no human society ever will. That’s part and parcel of the political dynamic that we suffer.
Yet I don’t adjudge it all as a bad buy...except for those times, which have been coming more frequently of late, when I yearn for the simplicity of a cabin on the side of a mountain, surrounded by nothing but trees and wildlife. Give me a stick, a stretch of sand, and time to think about geometry just as Pythagoras did long, long ago. Well, that plus a centerfire rifle chambered in .30-06 and a thousand rounds for it. Pythagoras might have appreciated those conveniences, too.