My maternal grandfather was a farmer—the kind with calloused hands who depended on the land for a living. With apologies to Clark, the romance of raising chickens would have been lost on him. Housing them in the yard of a townhouse in metro D.C.? Crazy.
In his autobiography, Mostly on the Edge, Karl Hess denounced the excesses of “self-reliant independence, of decentralism carried to any extreme,” calling it “an idealized form of hermitism.” He reprinted a letter he wrote to Jeffrey Hart in July 1990:
This letter, an apology, is long overdue even though possibly beyond your caring or memory. Nonetheless, I beg your patience and your attention to it.
Some years ago, when I spoke at Dartmouth, you and I got into a crazy sort of shouting match over the division of labor. We exchanged rather acrid letters on the subject also.
In that exchange, I shortly came to realize, you were absolutely correct and I was absolutely trendy, ideological, and wrong…
The center of our small storm in the lecture hall was your insistence that you would prefer not to go to the trouble of learning how to and then making your carbon-composite tennis racket.
My position, being mind-tossed by visions of people, in their own communities, being able to do everything, was that you not only could but should make your own tennis racket.
As with many wholly ideological exercises, I did not care to grasp the essential fact of the matter which was that I couldn’t make the tennis racket either. Moreover, being a welder at that time, I soon realized that I could not generate my own acetylene or oxygen in sufficient quantities to be significant for my work. Still, I must admit, as an ideologue, that I resisted the realization as much as possible…
When my aorta did burst, requiring an entire squad of surgeons and attendants to remove my heart and re-line and stitch up the offending artery, I had nearly terminal proof that the division of labor is one of the most sensible arrangements humans have contrived.
I now have a more Jeffersonian approach to the matter. I would like to be able to do everything. I try to do what I can but I more sensibly now reserve my strength and time for things I do better than growing vegetables or making your tennis racket…