10 July 2009

“we have not become more concerned with men than profit”

Edinburgh – I’ve left the farm, but I suspect it will be days before I can close my eyes without seeing kale or beetroot leaves. On my last day, Uwe took me on a walk to the far corner of the property that they are renting. At 80 acres, the entire farm is far bigger than the area under active cultivation, and I had not even seen most of it prior to this eleventh-hour tour. Uwe told me that before they moved here, their landlord kept a herd of sheep. Their dream is one day to buy the land from him, in partnership with ten or so other families, and divide it into a series of small family crofts. This sort of thing is happening in small pockets all over Scotland, Morven later told me.

If my hosts achieve their dream, the transition of the land will be rich with historical symbolism, because it will represent a small-scale undoing of one of the sorriest episodes in Scotland’s history. I hadn’t even known about the Highland Clearances prior to this trip, but a brief mention of it in a travel book caught my interest, and while browsing a used bookstore in Inverness I found a paperback history of the subject. In brief, the Clearances were an era of forced depopulation on a massive scale, leaving most of the Highlands’ people to scratch out a miserable existence on the coasts or leave their homeland for good.

The story of the Clearances begins after the Battle of Culloden in 1745, when English forces had their final triumph over Jacobite rebels from Scotland. I passed the battlefield on my way from the airport, and I later read that the Queen had just paid a visit there, which is another indication of just how much old passions have cooled. The battle’s immediate aftermath, however, caused a seismic shift in Scotland’s political system. Under the historical clan system, people lived on small farms under the protection of a hereditary chief (ceann), and were ready to fight for the clan at the drop of a hat. (Interesting aside: In his most recent book, Malcolm Gladwell advances the argument that feuding between extended families in the American South trace back to the Highland culture that early settlers—many undoubtedly expelled during the Clearances—brought with them.) The victorious English saw to the demolition of this system and stripped the clan chiefs of much of their traditional power.

Gradually the chiefs transitioned from their old role as patriarchs-cum-warlords to being little more than neutered landlords. Their kinsmen-turned-tenants had no legal rights. At the same time, England’s wars, its new industrial wealth, and its growing population led to exploding demand for meat. A new breed of sheep, the Great Cheviot, seemed perfectly made for the Scottish highlands. Entrepreneurial Englishmen and Lowland shepherds saw an opportunity to make a tidy profit, and they set about persuading the chiefs that selling or leasing their land for sheep farming would be far more lucrative than the present arrangement. Most chiefs took the bait, and over the ensuing decades, thousands of Highlanders found themselves evicted in the name of "Improvement."

There were protests, to be sure—a large one took place in the town closest to the farm—but the Highlanders lacked leadership, were forbidden from keeping weapons after Culloden, and still felt an attachment to their traditional chiefs, so these bits of rebellion were easily quashed at musket-point. An especially cruel new proprietor set fire to all of the homes on his land, one with an elderly, bedridden woman inside. Some of the expelled were "generously" offered new plots of poor land on the coast, a few found work fishing, but most simply had to leave the country. If you’re in the U.S. or Canada and you have ever met anybody whose last name begins with "Mac," there’s a good chance the Clearances had something to do with that. Thus, if Morven (herself a "Mac" by birth) succeeds in transforming former sheep pasture into a series of family farms, things will have come full circle.

Explaining why he wrote this history, the author of The Highland Clearances notes that "we have not become so civilized in our behaviour, or more concerned with men than profit, that this story holds no lessons for us." I wholeheartedly agree. Viewed from a purely economic perspective, the Clearances were an "improvement": they converted Scotland’s land to a higher-value mode of production and facilitated its transition from an agrarian to an industrial country. In the long run those who emigrated probably found their livelihoods improved, again in a purely economic sense. This is, of course, an extremely impoverished mindset—but I believe it is the same mindset that has guided a lot of modern-day development policy in poor countries. I think the analogy is especially relevant to trade, which mercilessly demolishes long-standing ways of life even as it enlarges the GDP of countries rich and poor. The point is not that economies shouldn’t change, shouldn’t industrialize, or shouldn’t trade—by all means, they should do all of those things. The point is that what happens in the transition matters too. Scottish farmers didn’t need to experience hunger and homelessness at the hands of their chiefs any more than African farmers need to experience hunger and homelessness at the hands of a First-World technocrat with a Structural Adjustment Program.

Those who advance the purely economic worldview often cite the thought of a Scotsman who once taught here in Edinburgh: Adam Smith, the "father of economics." In what may be the most celebrated sentence in the most celebrated economics text of all time, Smith wrote in his Wealth of Nations that people acting in their own self-interest within a market system often promote the larger social good, as if guided by an "invisible hand." I don’t know if any of those who perpetrated the Clearances had read Smith, but I suspect lots of them really did believe that what they were doing was for the larger social good. Here’s the rub, though: Smith also believed that benevolence and social cohesion are foundational to a properly functioning society. The "invisible hand" is not an unlimited license to be selfish; it only works its magic in a world where people have a certain level of decency and concern for one another. The Highland chiefs failed on that count, and I think that we too are failing Smith’s test today.

On that cheerful note, I am off to Ireland to meet my parents for a brief tour of the ancestral land before returning to Cambridge with them for graduation. I doubt there will be much time for blogging, so watch for a roundup in a little over a week’s time.

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