Montgomery County farmer-reader Duane Plessinger recently sent me a photocopy of an article from a 1952 issue of The Progressive Farmer. It was titled, “How Can We Save ‘The American Way’”, and was written by Clarence Poe (1881-1964), owner and later board chairman of the Progressive Farmer Co.
In his note, Plessinger observed, “they had the same concerns then that we have today, but I think the answers are about the same today.”
And he’s right. Poe’s piece featured about a frank dinner table conversation he had with a farmer, a merchant and a minister about the “American way of life” and if it could be saved — and how.
The merchant, who had lived through the Great Depression, piped up: “Machines do not buy goods. I know I woke up to that truth in my business about 1931-32.”
He quoted a famous merchant of that time, Edward A. Filene, who said, “To make every citizen an adequate consumer is absolutely necessary to prosperity in our Machine Age.”
In 1929, “farmers couldn’t be ‘adequate consumers’ because their prices dropped and kept dropping… Laborers couldn’t be ‘adequate consumers’ because as soon as one group lost its jobs, its purchasing power stopped — and this stopped business for other factories, and so on in a vicious circle.
“I learned then,” the merchant told his dining companions, “that business prosperity depends essentially on the prosperity of farmers and laborers as our ‘adequate consumers.’”
The diners talked about Big Labor and Big Business and Agriculture and how one sector is as selfish as the next if it gets too much power.
“It just seems to us,” Poe mused, “that Labor, Business and Agriculture must understand each other and help one another …”
It’s true. In addition to thinking about its own economic interests, the debaters decided as the evening wore down, each group must promote the ‘general welfare’, as the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution dictates. It is not just an economic doctrine, but a spiritual doctrine — an appeal to do the right thing and to work together for the common good of all.
No, they weren’t advocating a switch to communism or socialism — they were staunch defenders of a competitive form of business and private ownership of property. They were simply convinced that an economic house divided would never stand.
When Business treats the stock market and profits as its own personal playground, when Labor sees broad benefits as entitlements, when Agriculture sees farming as a right and not a privilege or a profession, and when Consumers abdicate common sense for lawsuits, we cannot move the American Way forward.
“The American Way must not be concerned only about profits. It must have a heart as well as a head,” Poe wrote.
“It must not only have ears for the calls of the stock market and the market place, but also for ‘the needy when he crieth.’”
Back then, Poe was unapologetic in calling the American Way of Life a “Christian Way,” not a very politically correct phrase 56 years later. But the concept of “promoting the general welfare” crosses all political, theological and ethnic boundaries. There is a common ground, even between Joe the Plumber and Wall Street elites, but politics and markets are organized around the pursuit of self-interest.
Our challenge — and the challenge of saving the American Way — is for Business, Labor, Agriculture and Consumers to stop pointing fingers and work together for the common good.