The Amish are Coming

OK, this post has nothing to with libertarianism, or even with politics, but with one of my pet subjects, the Amish. I’ve been intrigued with the Amish since I was a child, and would occasionally see them traveling by one or two horsepower wagons and carriages while we zipped by in our 100+ horsepower car. Indiana has the third highest population of Amish, and while there were none in our immediate area, there are substantial populations both south and north of my hometown.

I became even more intrigued when I realized that we were kin of a sort. My ancestors being Mennonites, were fellow anabaptists, although more worldly than the Amish. The key feature of anabaptism is a free will theology, which means a rejection of infant baptism, as a person must be old enough to make a free and informed choice to join the faith.* Although I did not grow up in the Mennonite Church, my mother clung to her essential anabaptism and refused to have us baptized as infants. The Indiana Amish also are more likely to be of Swiss-German ancestry, just like my Indiana Mennonite ancestors. Some common Amish surnames, like Yoder, are common also in my family tree.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the U.S.’s Amish population is growing at 5% a year, and has doubled since 1991. There are almost a quarter million Amish in the U.S. now. Although the article is not clear, I believe it refers specifically to the Old Order Amish, which is the group most people think of when they picture the Amish, but which is just one–albeit by far the largest–of several Amish sects.

This news is not surprising to those who have been paying attention. But then who has been paying attention? And why would anyone bother? It’s wholly understandable why the Amish are just a mere curiosity to most people. But the growth is interesting for at least two reasons. First, it is evidence that Amish youth are mostly sticking around, committing to the faith and community rather than leaving and adopting the ways of the world. While the popularized version of rumspringa is something of a fabrication (Amish adolescents are not, in fact, encouraged to go out and do a whole lot of sinning before they decide whether to get baptized), it is relatively easy in the contemporary world for them to see what they will be giving up if they stay in their community. The Amish are not wholly insular and self-sufficient, and will shop at retail stores. Some Meijer stores (a Midwest version of Wal Mart) even have special Amish parking spaces. It’s not possible for them to shop at those stores and not see televisions, microwave ovens, air conditioners, Ipods, etc. Yet, according to the WSJ article, 85% of Amish adolescents choose to turn their back on this material wealth. This says much about the difficult of leaving one’s family and community. More, I think, than it says about the strength of religious belief.

Second, the growth of Amish communities has created a bit of economic difficulty because the Amish have traditionally been farmers. I love driving by Amish farms on the way to my mom’s house and seeing the big draft horses they use in lieu of tractors. But buying new farmland is difficult, particularly as U.S. agricultural policy artificially drives up the price of farmland (subsidies create a future value stream that gets factored into the purchase price). This is why Amish furniture has become such a big deal in the last couple of decades. It was necessary to find another economic niche that could be conducted without benefit of electricity or modern machinery. Another area the Amish have long been involved in is construction, where they developed a reputation for honesty and excellent craftsmanship, qualities that were invaluable, I think, in creating their furniture niche. It’s a fascinating story, I think, of economic creativity as well as social adaptability. Besides, I’m always fascinated by niche markets, because they so blatantly contradict the belief of anti-market, and anti-modernist, folks that all we have available today are mass market commodities like McDonalds hamburgers. I think it’s an amazing testament to the vibrancy of markets that such a pre-modernist community could find an economic niche that allows them to thrive in a very modern world.

Ooops. I did slip into a bit of libertarianism there. That wasn’t my intent, really. I’m just perpetually intrigued by the Amish, economic issues aside. I don’t want to either glamorize or romanticize them, but I suspect they may be making a good choice by rejecting many modern conveniences. It’s not that I dislike my television and microwave oven, but all the crap I own does impose a burden on my life. I’ve spent over $2,000 repairing one of my cars in recent months, which comes after spending $6,000 to replace my other car. Am I really better off? Our television broke, and we “had” to replace it. It was yet another stressful annoyance. My house is hard to keep neat and orderly because my kids have so much stuff we can’t figure out where to put it. I enjoyed my wilderness canoe trip in part because everything–including our available possessions–was so simplified and stripped down. As soon as I returned home, I began to stress out again about stuff, things, tasks, duties and responsibilities. I don’t believe that God demands material simplicity, but increasingly I begin to suspect that human sanity does.

And for a slightly more philosophical question. If wealth is, as Adam Smith said, the ability to command goods and services, should we measure that on an absolute scale or a relative scale–that is, relative to what we actually want? If on an absolute scale I can command fewer goods and services than a person with more money, but my desires are so few that I can actually satisfy them all, while the person with more money hasn’t sufficiently great desires that he can’t satisfy them, is he really wealthier than me? On a material scale, of course he is. And I’m not arguing that everyone should give up all their stuff, or that society as a whole should stop innovating and inventing new stuff. Not only is it not my role to tell others what they should want, much of that stuff has indisputably improved our lives. (I don’t know for sure, but I suspect Amish carpenters benefit from advances in metallurgy.)

And of course it may be that countless Amish chafe at not being able to have modern conveniences, particularly Amish housewives who might love to have a gas stove and microwave oven, or Amish children who wish they could have a flashlight so they could illicitly read books under the covers at night, or whole families suffering through a hot humid midwestern summer, while through their open windows they can hear the hum of the air conditioning from their “English” neighbor across the road.

I don’t know the answers to those questions. But I do like that our country, for all it’s faults, guarantees a space for such people to live, more apart from than a part of our society.

_________________________________
*I despise Calvinism as a matter of course.

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About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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14 Responses to The Amish are Coming

  1. buddyglass says:

    I’m glad to have found your new home since the other blog closed down.

    I’m also fascinated by the Amish. Or, more accurately, by how they are regarded by certain other elements in society and what that implies for American Christians in general.

    Basically, nobody hates the Amish. This, despite the fact that (as far as I know) their brand of Christianity is about as orthodox and theologically conservative as anything out there. Still, nobody really finds them “repugnant” in the same way they do American evangelicalism.

    I think its interesting to contemplate why.

  2. Alex says:

    Count me as another person fascinated by the Amish, or any self-regulating community in any nation. A self-regulating community can be as large as the Amish or as small as a county, local church, or family. This is a very libertarian idea. Or is it a distinctly religious idea? After all, religious people were separating themselves from the world long before the Enlightenment worked out its secular thinking on liberty. Think back to the Jewish Qumran community around the time of Jesus, or the desert fathers, or the millenia of Buddhist monks. I’d be interested to hear Jon Rowe’s thoughts on this post.

    You mention that a key feature of Anabaptism is free will theology. That may have been what gave Anabaptism its name, but I would argue that a more distinctive feature from the beginning, and especially in our day, is the commitment to nonviolence. The Mennonite charity Christian Peacemaker Teams is one example. Self-sustaining and nonviolent: it seems to me that the Anabaptist tradition (which for those reading includes Mennonites and Amish) share a fair amount in common with their secular libertarian counterparts.

  3. Heidegger says:

    James,

    An absolutely wonderfully, beautifully written post–well done!

  4. Matty says:

    Re. Alex, I wonder if anyone has looked at the historical links between the two movements. For example I suspect that both can trace a kind of intellectual genealogy back to the radicals of the English civil war.

  5. James K says:

    I’m always fascinated by niche markets, because they so blatantly contradict the belief of anti-market, and anti-modernist, folks that all we have available today are mass market commodities like McDonalds hamburgers.

    Its a powerful testament to the Law of Comparative Advantage. The Amish are arguably less productive at everything relative to modernity, but they can still trade because even without absolute advantage, they can still trade on their comparative advantage.

    As far a religious communities go, I’m good with the Amish (though we don’t have any in New Zealand) since they’re no trouble, if only all religious folks were so accommodating. However I find their worldview so alien I just can’t wrap my head around it. I have the same trouble with Buddhists.

  6. James Hanley says:

    Buddyglass–Glad you found us! Welcome back to our own virtual self-regulating community.

    Alex–I agree that the capacity to allow multiple self-regulating communities is very libertarian. Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom would use the phrase “polycentrity” (multiple overlapping centers of localized authority). Of course the irony is that none of those communities themselves needs to be very libertarian–as the Amish certainly are not–for the whole system to be libertarian.

    As to free will vs. pacifism. I agree that pacificism is a tremendously important part of anabaptist doctrine. In the last couple of presidential elections the Republicans made some serious attempts to get out the Amish vote, based on issues like abortion and homosexuality. I always wondered how that worked out, given that they had embroiled us in two wars simultaneously. But pacifism wasn’t really what gave the anabaptists their initial push, as much as the various elements of free will, such as not having priests come between man and god, no state endorsement of the church, etc. But pacifism is one of the aspects that draws me toward anabaptism, although I am most decidedly not a pacifist myself.

  7. Chris says:

    Alex, the Mennonites, and their offshoots, the Amish, came from Germany, Holland, and Switzerland mostly. Most of them still speak some form of German, to this day (at least the Amish do). They didn’t have a real presence in the English civil war. The infighting in England gave us not pacifists, but very violent sects, including the Puritans and all those crazy Calvinist nonconformists. The best treatment of them is in Melmoth the Wanderer.

  8. Chris,

    I would disagree somewhat, at least when it comes to the Quaker, who, as I understand it, emerged, or at least gained popularity, during the civil war of the 1640s and later years in England.

  9. Heidegger says:

    James, a quite brilliant and beautifully written post—bravo!

    And who can forget the reaction of the Amish community after the slaughter of those five young girls who were who were merely attending school in their one-room schoolhouse. Complete, utter forgiveness for the perpetrator and sympathy and prayers extended to his family. Just remarkable.

  10. Heidegger says:

    All my posts disappear—gulp—am I banned?? Can think of no other explanation…

  11. Chris says:

    Ah, Pierre, you’re right. I wasn’t thinking of the Quakers. They did arise out of that period.

  12. Jennifer says:

    Maybe the Amish youth stick around because they have no real choice — Amish parents are allowed to pull their kids out of school after eighth grade, and how well can a person reasonably expect to get by in modern society with an eighth-grade education? Good luck finding a job that even pays enough to rent a one-bedroom apartment. And stories about the dark side of Amish life come out from time to time — a year of so ago the story of Anna Slabaugh made the rounds — she claims she was “shunned” by church elders when she refused to shut up about her brothers sexually abusing her.

  13. matty says:

    Well I completely missed the not English part about Anabaptists and I wasn’t thinking specifically of pacifism as riffing off Alex’s “more in common” remark. Specifically my idea is that the radicals in the New Model Army (not the leaders like Cromwell) tended to talk about things like free speech and to prefer Churches separate from the state. Of course the mix also included ideas about sharing property so they weren’t that much like libertarians.

  14. Heidegger says:

    A very beautiful, well-written post, James—bravo!

    Since the age of six or so, and as a native Pennsylvanian, have had a lifelong love and obsession with the Amish, Beethoven, hobos, and the Pirates–go figure.

    No point going on–apparently, I’ve be banned–all previous posts seem to end up in the cyber shredder. Best of luck with the new site–always, always interesting.

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