Invisible Hand – Chapter Twenty-Five: Down on the Farm

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In which Niall visits a successful working farm and buys a car.

Niall had decided that if he was going to live in town and work in the country he was going to need a car. There was a used car lot in town, so of course Niall started there. His first error was to walk onto the lot. The prices were posted on the side windows of the cars. On the same sheet was the mileage driven, the approximate miles per gallon, and the names of previous owners. That looked almost normal to Niall. He was just getting into one of the cars when an older woman walked up and said, “Hold on there. What do you think you are doing?”

Surprised, Niall bumped his head on the roof of the car, (a second error) and somewhat angrily answered, “Looking over this car. What’s it to you?” (Third error.)

“Get your ____ ____ off this lot and stay off,” was the abrupt reply.

“No. I want to buy a car. I’ll leave when I’ve finished my business here.” (Niall’s head hurt like blazes but need I say, fourth error?)

The woman raised a whistle to her lips (Niall hadn’t noticed that she carried the whistle but we can forgive him for that error) and blew a blast of at least 5 seconds. Niall was impressed at her lung power and his ears were impressed with the volume produced.

The response was not long in coming. Two men came hurrying out of the small office building on the lot and another man shortly came running out of a cafe across the street. Almost before he knew what was happening, Niall found himself grabbed and hustled toward the street and the oncoming man from the cafe. He was just on the point of using his Special Forces self-defense training (which he had not practiced in years, another error in one sense but not another) when he spotted a badge on the man approaching from the cafe. Figuring he was safe in the presence of the law he called out,

“Let me go or I’ll flatten both of you.”

The officer immediately brought order by commanding, “Shut up and stand still if you know what’s good for you.”

Niall figured he was in for it since he didn’t think he could take on all three of them. He stopped struggling and stood erect, eyes narrowed, trying to remember the quick self-hypnosis techniques he had been taught years ago. He figured he was in for a beating right there on the street. Somehow he had violated some local taboo.

The woman had followed behind as Niall was hustled toward the street and began talking as soon as the officer had finished. “Came on the lot and started to get in a car without even looking for the owner. You’d think he owned the place. And when I called him on it, he got testy and told me he wouldn’t leave. That’s when I blew the whistle. I ain’t taking that from no slacker out for a joy ride. You arrest him, Charlie. I bet he’s wanted somewhere. You just check him out. You might show him the city limits, too. We don’t need his kind around here.”

“Calm down, Desiree, he ain’t resisting now so we can find out who he is in a minute.” Turning to Niall the officer said, “Who are you, mister. I seen you around town the last few days but you ain’t known to me.”

“I’m Niall Campbell. I live over on Maple Street in one of Sam Witherspoon’s places. I work out at the TDP plant,” Niall responded.

The policeman took a phone off his belt and looked at the screen for a few seconds. He punched a couple of buttons and looked some more. Then he punched a lot of buttons and waited for about 30 seconds.

“Desiree, I think you done blew it on this one. He checks out six ways from Sunday. He’s not wanted anywhere in the State and he ain’t wanted anywhere in the U.S. I even checked with Interpol. He has a clean record. He’s been working for the government overseas for the last 17 years and just got back in the country last month. And if that ain’t enough for you, he has over $80,000 in his account. He can afford to buy practically your whole stock of cars if he wants to.”

Well before the officer finished, the two men had released Niall and had backed up a step each. They began apologizing almost immediately.

Desiree wasn’t going to give up that easily. “What’s the matter with you, mister? What are you doing coming on somebody else’s property and messing with their stuff without so much as a ‘By your leave’? Don’t you have any manners at all? Do you just walk into other people’s houses and use their stuff? I could have shot you, you know that?”

Niall tried to answer the questions but Desiree wasn’t giving him any pause and talked right over the few words he got out.

Finally Charlie said in a loud voice, “Desiree, give the man a chance to explain himself.”

Desiree opened her mouth to reply and Niall quickly began to apologize.

“Please excuse my boorish behavior. I’m new here and don’t know how things should be done.”

That didn’t appease Desiree in the least. “What kind of place are you from that you can just ignore property rights? They let you just get in their cars without permission and do whatever you want with them? These are my cars and I take good care of them. Ain’t nobody cleans up their cars better nor checks the engine and body integrity more careful than I do. I don’t let nobody mess with them. I don’t care how much money you got or what high-class job you had before you got here. You keep your hands off my property unless I give you permission to touch it. You hear me?”

“Yes ma’am. You are right ma’am. I was completely wrong to do what I did. I’ll never do such a thing again to anybody. You’ve really taught me a lesson that my momma tried to teach me but I guess I was just too ornery to learn. I’ll always thank you in my prayers for helping me learn this lesson before I offended someone who was not as forgiving as you and who really would have shot me.”

With a little effort Niall found that he really did mean the sense of what he was saying. He really did feel badly about handling her property without even looking for the owner. That was the really big error he had made. Without that error the others wouldn’t have mattered, really. Appearing to have no money (he was wearing his work clothes) could have easily have been cleared up. She wouldn’t have startled him if he hadn’t been getting into her car without permission. She wouldn’t have spoken so sharply to him, thus helping to provoke his rude answer and so on. All his problems were a result of his disrespectful attitude toward her property.

By the time he’d finished his apology, Desiree had calmed somewhat and Niall had experienced a surprising realization. After some further humble pie eating on Niall’s part, he was able to buy a car from Desiree. But the realization followed him during the rest of his day’s work.

As a child he’d been taught to respect other people’s property. He wasn’t to touch things when in other people’s houses without their permission. He wasn’t to go into others' yards and play with the toys there, no matter how interesting they were. He wasn’t to touch other people without their permission.

But he had always assumed it was OK to treat things that were public as if they were his own, almost. When he went to the park he could play on the swings and the slide as if he owned them. Of course he couldn’t prevent others from doing the same but he could use them without asking permission. When they went into a store Niall could touch the things that were for sale, in most cases, and when he couldn’t, they put the things behind glass or out of his reach.

He had gotten so used to this situation that by adulthood he didn’t even think about what was public and what was private any more. He just knew the difference, though he might not have been able to clearly say what the difference was.

But what was the difference? That now appeared to be an important question to answer. Now he was an adult. He should understand the difference. What was it that made him think that the cars on the lot weren’t owned by somebody? What made him think that it was OK to just get in someone else’s car? Yes, the cars were there to be seen. They were for sale. But that didn’t make them public in the sense he was used to. The food he got from the grocery was also out in public in the sense that it was on display. But it was still owned. He had no right to assume, just because it was standard food and he didn’t have to pay for it, that he could just pick it up and walk off with it. Somebody else still owned it. When he had selected clothes in the standard store, he had felt as if he could just take anything he wanted to take. Why? Just because he was not going to have to pay money to get the items? But that didn’t make them public.

What things were public? Before the transition the government had owned the streets and parks and a host of other things. Somehow Niall had gained the impression that that was not the case any longer. One reason was because the government just about didn’t exist any more. What did it mean to say the government owned a street when there was nobody from the government or of the government that had anything to do with the street? The police drove or walked patrols on the streets but they didn’t repair the streets. They didn’t accept responsibility for the street. In what sense did it belong to the police? Niall couldn’t see any way the police owned the street. Did the street belong to all the people? What did that mean? Such a statement made a mockery of the whole concept of ownership. Did nobody own the street? That made just as much sense as everybody owning the street. So who owns the street?

OK, Niall thought, back to basics. In the beginning somebody had to build the street. But it takes more than just one person to build a street. First you need the land, then you need materials, then you need a lot of labor. And tools, it took a lot of tools. Did the guys who did the physical labor own the street? What about the people who contributed the materials? What about the engineers who drew up the plans and specifications? For that matter, even streets, perhaps especially streets, need maintenance. What about the people who patch the potholes and rebuild the street after someone digs a trench across it? For that matter, somebody had to give permission for the street to be built where it was. No, wait, government is about gone, whoever that had been, there was a good chance nobody was expected to do that any more. OK. Scratch the permission. But still, there were a lot of people who were involved in creating and maintaining a street. Would they all own the street?

What about the people who lived on either side of the street? They were the closest to the street. Did the street by existing next to their property give them any rights over it? No, that didn’t make any sense either.

OK. Basics again. In the beginning, the land the street would be built on was part of the property of several people. So they owned the land the street was on in the beginning. Then they must have given the property to someone who represented the people who participated in the building of the street. And the builders must also have been given materials by still other people and the civil engineers must have contributed their labor and somebody contributed the tools. They all gave these things to the person in charge of the building project one way or another.

OK. Now we’re getting somewhere. If that one person owned all that stuff, then it only made sense that he also owned the street that resulted. All those materials and all that labor had been given to him so together all those people who contributed had given him the street. He couldn’t very well give back the labor or the materials that were part of the street. He could give the land with the street on it back but by then the land was only useful as a street. So the street belonged to the person in charge of the building project. That was the only way it made sense.

Is it still private property? Well, it pretty much has to be. What other kind of property is there in a society that seems to have no government? Who controls the street? What does it mean to control a street?

Let’s see. Joe Smith builds a street. Then he says that Sally Jones can’t walk on that street. What is going to happen? Will the police enforce that order? I don’t think so. If they did enforce it that would probably reduce their pay. Will Joe stand on his street and try to keep Sally off it? I don’t think so. Even if Joe did such a thing, would anybody contribute to his next building project? Probably not. They’d think he was crazy. So what if he wanted to close the street unless people gave him something, hold the street for ransom, so to speak? Would the police enforce that? Nope. I can’t see that happening, either. Again, there’d be no pay for doing that. Almost anything that Joe wants to do with his street that keeps it from being used as a street won’t get the cooperation of anyone else because they wouldn’t get paid for doing so. There isn’t much Joe can do with a street without the cooperation of other people.

Just because Joe owns the street doesn’t mean that anyone else has to help him do anything with that street and it doesn’t mean that anyone else is obligated to protect Joe’s rights with respect to that street.

So even though individuals own all the property that used to be public property, other people continue to use that property pretty much as they did before. The owner gets paid for the people using that formerly public property, so owners will want the property to be used and maintained.

What’s the difference between that public property and the same property now that it is private? Now Niall began to understand why there was a lack of potholes. The owners of the roads and the people who cooperated in the making of the roads were being paid for how much the roads benefit people. Therefore, they wanted to make a long-lasting, useful road which resists getting potholes. Anyone who wanted to make money from roads could maintain them (with the owner’s consent) and thus get paid. Before the transition, the builder got paid the same whether the road got potholes or not. Then he got paid again if he was the contractor who repaired the potholes. So he would make more money if there were more potholes. The people who arranged for the road construction weren’t paying with their own money so they didn’t care how much money it was costing. Low bid won the contract so the builders would make the roads as cheaply as possible. It was almost bound to produce poor roads.

Since the transition, some individual was responsible for and was rewarded for the proper construction and maintenance of every bit of that formerly-public property. As a result, the public was much better served by that private property than they had been by that same property when it was public property. Curious. Somehow he would never have expected that.


The result of Niall’s experience was that he arrived at his host’s farm with his mind filled with thoughts about property, ownership, and what had happened to the concepts. The farmer, whose name was Dusty LeClerk, was about 10 years older than Niall and had a wife and several children. The two sons still lived on the farm, though they had built their own houses for their young families.

Naturally, Niall started asking questions.

How much had the houses cost? Nothing.

“Why not?”

“To start with, this is my land so there was no need for anybody to get paid for our using it. Second, the houses were going to be used by families, so the materials contributed would be earning pay as necessities for the contributors. Third, I persuaded the builders to come help us with the parts we were reluctant to do, like the plumbing and electrical work. They could have demanded that we pay for their work but since we did most of the work ourselves and fed the guys who helped us pretty well there was no question of that. So I own the houses and if they’re better than standard no one cares. Anyway, the boys will fill them up with kids before long. I already got one grandchild on the way, but don’t say anything because I’m not supposed to know.”

“So you built a luxury and gave it to someone else and no money changed hands?”

“What’s wrong with that? What’s mine I can give to whomever I want.”

“Well yes, but doesn’t that bypass the Payers?”

“Of course it does. What do I care? They aren’t gatekeepers for who gets luxuries. They have no power to prevent anybody from getting luxuries. They just have the power to offer luxuries to people who provide benefit. They pretty much keep their noses out of my life except when I take something to market or bring in some hands to help out.”

“Speaking of taking things to market, how have things changed for farmers since the transition?”

“Things are a lot better. This farm’s been in my family for over 100 years but there were a lot of times when we almost lost it. We pretty much survived by borrowing as much as we could and raising all the cash crops we could. There were times when only a soft-hearted banker, trusting us for one more year, came between us and having to auction off the farm to pay our creditors.

“This is the way it worked. We had to borrow to get enough money to put in a crop. If the weather was good and the market was good for our crop, then we would make enough money to buy some equipment. If the weather was bad or the market was bad then we got deeper in debt to the bank. Government programs came along after World War II and we sometimes made money by not growing things but we had all these restrictions on what we could grow and how much of that. Lots of farmers just couldn’t make it. Most of the government farm support money went to businesses rather than farmers. One more case of the rich getting richer.

“Today I don’t have to worry about losing the farm. There aren’t any taxes and we don’t have to grow anything if we don’t want to. The worst we can do is not get paid at all. We have no creditors. We have no government regulations. We can grow as much as we want of whatever we can make grow.

“One of the best things is that we can improve the soil. We don’t have to grow cash crops every year. I have several fields that haven’t felt a plow in 4 or 5 years. I have several kinds of plants growing on those fields, all of which are helping to rebuild the fertility of that soil.

“Also, since it lowers our pay if we use a lot of fertilizer or insecticides, we’ve come up with all sorts of ways to kill the bugs with other bugs and bug resistant plants. We have a new kind of grass, for example, that puts nitrogen into the soil, covers and holds the soil to prevent erosion, and its roots go only a couple of inches deep so the crops growing on that same land don’t compete with the grass for nutrients. The grass is also drought resistant and tends to hold water in the soil. Bare dirt gets dry a lot faster than dirt covered with that grass. Of course, with the grass, it takes different techniques for planting and different equipment. They’re coming up with a new plant stalk that can have several different crops on top. They could grow corn and tomatoes and peaches, for example, on the same stalk coming out of the ground. Since the stalk is permanent and we can have crops on that stalk that become ripe at different times of the year, we can have three or four crops without ever replanting or having to disturb the dirt at all.”

Niall could see the eagerness and enthusiasm that Dusty evidenced came from real pleasure in his present life. The photographs on the mantle showed a man with a lot more tension and worry on his mind that the Dusty Niall saw before him. Clearly Dusty would hate to go back to the old ways.

It was also clear that Dusty didn’t feel like he was being controlled by anything or anybody. Niall had to admit that the farm certainly looked prosperous. Everything looked clean and in good repair. Dusty’s wife also looked healthy and happy. Niall began to feel like he had stepped into a Norman Rockwell painting. Dusty told his TV to call the boys and tell them lunch was ready. So Niall stopped asking questions for a while. When the boys got there with their wives (one each), there was much shaking of hands and introductions.

The food was delicious. Dusty was proud to say that everything but the spices came from his farm. It was all fresh, the meat, the vegetables, even the fruit.

Niall asked about the fruit and one of the sons who had seemed shy earlier was unable to wait for his father’s answer.

“We’ve started building our own greenhouses. We can grow crops now year-round. Since we can provide all sorts of crops 'out of season', we can get top prices. We’re even providing fresh vegetables to some of the top restaurants in D.C. I think…”

“Yes, yes. We know what you think. You’ll have the whole farm under glass before we know it,” Dusty said kindly.

Then turning to Niall, he continued, “Red, here, put up the first greenhouse three years ago. We told him he was wasting his time but he talked the lumberyard in Aldie into giving him the glass. I think it was the pies your mother cooked that actually persuaded them,” Dusty said, looking at Red. “Then he spent a whole year getting everything ready. He put in heaters and some contraption that would wash the roof windows. He got seed and made some special soil for the plants, and the next year he was growing tropical plants in there: and placing his crops in luxury foods sections of stores. The next year he had those restaurants taking his stuff and this year he has requests from places 500 miles from here! He is making five times more per acre that Dan and I are. I’m right proud of the boy.”

Red’s wife glowed with pleasure. Dusty didn’t know it but she had been the driving force behind Red’s enterprising ways and it had been her idea to build greenhouses.

“Don’t you feel funny giving your crops away without knowing how much you’re going to get paid for them?” It had always seemed strange to Niall that farmers would give away all that food without some way to know what they’d be paid for it.

“Well let me tell you,” Dusty said with a laugh. “I was pretty leery of the whole idea in the beginning. But mother, here, had a garden back then that happened to have a pretty good crop of several vegetables. You know, carrots, peas, beans, and lots of tomatoes. Well she used to sell some of it to the grocery store in town before the transition and she just went ahead and took food in there like she always did. Well, it wasn’t but about three weeks later and she noticed that she had some more money in her account. So the next time she took in even more things. Before you know it, she was making a right good income from that garden. So I took a chance and took my crops to the same elevator I usually did. They accepted my crops. Took several weeks to get it all taken in. Sure enough, in a month I had a little increase in the account and in six months I’d made more money than I usually got in profit in a year. Now it was less dollars in income but there were no taxes to take out and I didn’t have to spend anything on the next year’s seed or fertilizer or gas or electricity. So I figure I came out pretty much ahead. Now that Red and Ted are working with me, we make about three times as much a year as we ever did before, during the best years.”

“But you don’t get to know what you will be paid before you agree to give up the crops. How can you go in blind like that? It seems like they take your produce and then come back later and just give you what they feel like giving you. They could be ripping you off.”

“You know, Niall, I thought that very thing myself. How could I trust that somebody would notice what I was doing and even if they noticed, would they pay me? But I knew the elevator operator was going to want my crops next year so he wanted me to get the credit. Also, if they didn’t pay me this year I sure wasn’t going to take anything in next year. I figured that I could survive a lot longer on this farm than those Payers could in the city. Also, I talked to a lot of my neighbors and we agreed that since our crops were all going into the same pile at the elevator, we’d better get pretty much the same pay per bushel or we’d know that something was wrong.”

“When the pay started coming in, we compared notes and, sure enough, you could tell pretty easily that we were being paid on the same basis. It did vary some depending on when we got our produce to the elevator but that’s always been the case. Some farmers like to shop around with the different elevators. I trust old Dave in Aldie. He played fair with me before the transition and he seems to be playing fair with me now.”

“Now that I think of it, though, the main thing is that I can afford to wait. That is, I don’t have to have my money right away. I’m not paying any interest to anybody. We don’t have to have money for things like insurance or clothes. We don’t have any bills coming in. You could say I’m being paid all the time, just not in money. I don’t worry about the bill when I go to the dentist or the doctor. For what I do here on the farm the free clothes do just fine. I get gas and seed and feed and fertilizer without having to pay for it. So I think I’m getting paid for my crops all year round. It’s just that the money part of my pay doesn’t come in until somebody eats the food I grow.”

“Why does the feed and seed store give you seed? Why do you get farm equipment free? Why should all those people just give you what you need to farm?” Niall couldn’t understand such generosity.

“How much pay will the seed store folks get for having seed sit in their warehouse and rot? What farmer is going to give them more seed if they waste what they have? If they don’t give seed to us farmers, why should they be paid at all? Same thing holds for the farm equipment. It isn’t earning money for the folks that built it nor for the guys who transported it here from the factory nor for Jesse at his tractor lot if that gear just sits on the lot and rusts. It’s only earning money if people use it for farming. Nowadays, Jesse is always calling up to see what I need and when I expect to need it. He tells the factory what he thinks he can profitably place, and that’s what they ship him. We bring in the crops and that gets people paid right back down the line. The factory knows how much to make and when to deliver it and we farmers always have what we need. Also, whenever I don’t need some equipment any more or it gets old, I take it back to Jesse and he does something with it. I get pay for lots of that stuff, too. Of course, at first some of the gear I gave him was processed for scrap but I got a little pay even for that and it got that junk off my land. Oh, and gas, your TDP plant didn’t exist back at the transition, but the gas stations still gave us gas for farm work because they wanted to eat and we were a pretty high priority.”

“Farming isn’t 'me against the world' any more. It’s all of us, together. When I take a crop to the elevator I don’t worry about my price because I know they’ll get me as much money as possible for it because that’s how they get as much money as possible for themselves. Jesse knows I’ll get him as much money as possible because that gets me as much money as possible. When neighbors need some equipment, I loan it to them if I’m not using it because that gets all of us more money.”

Niall said, “If you think of it that way, maybe it’s not so bad.”

“Bad? Boy we farmers never had it so good. Anybody that’s willing to do the work can make it in farming these days. Everybody wants to help you and none of them have their hands out.”

Niall grinned and said, “You’re just sayin’ that ‘cause you want to keep these two fine boys close to home.”

On the way home Niall had more time to think. He still wasn’t being told what to do on the job and Dusty wasn’t taking any orders from anybody. So far he hadn’t found any restrictions on his actions except those of ordinary courtesy. Keep your hands off other people’s stuff and they’ll leave you alone. Niall had almost forgotten about the computer since he used it daily as a tool when driving Bart and he’d even become accustomed to having Jeeves around the house.

Was he being lulled into a false sense of security?

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