Where There Was a Will
DECEMBER 01, 1979 by JESS RALEY
Mr. Raley is a free-lance author, speaker, philosopher from Gadsden, Alabama.
In America today there seems to be near universal awakening to the fact that something is wrong. Individuals in vast numbers are no longer inspired to excel in their respective fields of endeavor.
Business leaders fault labor, OPEC, government, imports and employee apathy. Labor blames business, government, OPEC, and the low wages paid in exporting countries. Rank and file citizens generally believe government, OPEC, labor, business and lousy working conditions to be the primary culprits. Government suspects business, OPEC, foreign ingenuity, lack of respect for the dollar abroad and malingering personnel on production lines. (Labor controls too many votes to be faulted by those who have to stand for election from time to time).
Every cognizant individual old enough to remember when the zest for life was, of necessity, honed to a fine edge is fully aware that the intangible known as the American will has, in fact, diminished perceptibly. The only thing I can’t understand about the case of diminishing will—and it really bugs me—is so many people asking why.
One of the few things I know for an absolute certainty is why the American will (that seems to be the accepted term used, no doubt, to avoid complicated nomenclature) is less vivacious, aggressive, and steadfast than it once was—why so many individuals feel little, if any, responsibility for themselves, their job, family and government. I know why because I was there when it happened, saw the seeds of irresponsibility planted and observed the first bitter fruits of that harvest.
Let me say at this point that I have never known or learned to think of an average person. The people I meet, get to know, learn to like or dislike, are all individuals and a surprisingly large number of them are by no means devoid of will. On the other hand relentless encroachment on freedom of choice, innumerable restrictive regulations on enterprise and the fact that people have learned that losers, as well as those who never see the starting gate, have equal recourse to one or more government wealth-sharing program tends to, more or less, dull the once fine cutting edge of America’s will to excel.
In January 1933 I found it necessary to drop out of school. Dad was having a difficult time just feeding the family so I decided to move to my granddad’s farm in Appalachia where I could, hopefully, earn my own living. Being in my middle teens at the time, I even expected to save enough money to return to school.
The old farm was in a steep narrow valley and, except for a few small level plots, the productive soil had washed away many years before. This was not particularly important to me since I didn’t have the means to cultivate the land anyway, but I did find innumerable ways to make a living. I learned to hunt and trap animals for their fur, dig medicinal roots, especially ginseng, and where to sell them; find and rob wild bees; pick and market wild berries; and numerous other ways to earn money.
As a matter of fact I had a ball in Appalachia, lived well after the first few weeks and actually accumulated enough in the process to return to school. I was, therefore, really just a transient who learned from the local residents what I needed to know to attain my appointed goal, and then I moved on.
Everyone in the area must have been well below poverty level if there was a poverty level in those days. But the people who lived in the larger valleys and owned more level land seemed to be doing fairly well. It was the real poor folk, however, who lived in the ridges and small eroded valleys where I was, and were almost as poor, that I came to know and admire. These were the hustlers who parlayed their meager crops with what they could earn from other sources to sustain their families. In my opinion—and I’ve had a love affair with anthropology since the fifth grade—man, living in an organized society, has never been more free and independent than those people were. They accepted full responsibility for themselves and their families; no one expected anything from a source other than their own efforts.
Sometime that summer the government programs started. An agent came through offering to pay farmers from eleven to twenty-one dollars an acre, depending on how good he judged their cotton to be, to plow up all or any part of it. Most farmers plowed up some part of their crop. With cotton selling for about five cents a pound and the area’s history of low productivity, it was the practical thing to do.
The difference in payment caused considerable resentment among neighbors, however, since in midsummer most farmers think their crop is as good as the best and better than the rest. I had put in a small crop that year after all by plowing for an elderly gentleman in exchange for the use of his mule and plow, a day for a day. Since I had only three acres of cotton, I didn’t destroy any of it. I did get a preview, however, of how government programs would be administered when the agent paid his cousin top money for seven acres of very poor cotton while offering or paying at or near the bottom level to most everyone else.
Next came the commodity program designed by the "philanthropists" in Washington to feed the poor better than they could feed themselves while reducing the mountains of surplus commodities.
The program seemed to work well in that it achieved these goals. No doubt its sponsors were quite pleased with themselves. But I still hurt when I remember what it did to most of the people who participated. In retrospect, these first ripples of government intervention were very small indeed in relation to the tidal waves that have followed. However, they were that first step of a long journey, a foot in the door that had heretofore been strictly private, the first pitch of a whole new ballgame.
At first only a few of the more indolent signed up to receive commodities. Then, as others saw their neighbors eating better without effort than they could eat by scratching as hard as they could, more and more people capitulated. It was like watching trees in a virgin forest fall and knowing they would never grow quite so tall again. Envy and resentment played a major role, along with nagging spouses. But for whatever reason, when individuals signed up for commodities they seemed to become different people, lose the essence of their zest for life.
Everyone in the area must have been eligible to receive commodities. At first, only a few signed up so the people who had accepted the job of distributing them were forced to get out and beat the bushes in an effort to find people who would take the mounting piles of food off their hands. I happened to be at a friend’s house one day—we had cut a bee tree and were dividing the honey—when a commodity agent came by looking for prospects. He explained that the food was piling up and that he had to move it to hold his job. When we declined his offer the agent asked my friend pointblank why we refused; and I doubt to this day that a better answer could have been given.
"I don’t do nigh as good a job supporting my family as I would like to do," he said, "but I well know whose job it is." That, I believe, is a classic example of the will, once so prevalent, that built America—the will so many people are hoping their fellow citizens can recapture in this age.
By the time I left Appalachia it was easy to detect participants in the commodity program just by talking with them. People who had been eager to help cut a bee tree, dig a load of rhododendron and ferns to sell, or any of the numerous projects that offered some small remuneration, were no longer interested after being on commodities for a while. More than this, their thinking changed perceptibly. Americans, since the Revolution, had felt responsible—not to government but for government—in the same sense that they felt responsible for themselves and their family. As individuals accepted or were forced to participate in various programs, they changed positions, in their own mind, placing government in the parent role of primary authority and responsibility. In less than two years, fully one-third of the people in the area were accepting government handouts in lieu of individual will.
The things I saw happen in that remote region were, of course, being acted out in every nook and corner of these United States. As the years passed, more and more people became addicted to an ever-increasing number of government programs. Industrial workers protected by powerful unions with unrealistic contracts, obtained in many cases with the aid of government pressure, often do no more than dabble at their work. Extra effort and ingenuity is not necessary to hold a job; as a matter of fact, motivation is often frowned on by fellow workers where just drifting with the flow has become the norm. After all, if the company goes broke, the employees can always draw their pennies.
Since the stone of necessity no longer keeps a cutting edge honed on individual will the American economy has been forced to draw more and more on that reserve we hillbillies are wont to call gut fat—capital, labor, technology and motivation invested before the American will was inhibited by government handouts and restrictions. In those days a man was responsible without recourse for his own house. He could invest his means in a business venture knowing that as the owner he could hire acceptable personnel, direct operations, enjoy the fruits of success, or suffer loss if the venture was a failure. The people employed by such a man knew they could do their job well and stay on the payroll, possibly moving to a better position if the business prospered; or they could fail to show incentive and find themselves terminated.
A long-time friend of mine has been associated with railroads all his working life. He and I were discussing this gut-fat proposition recently and he ventured the guess that if a railroad were built from scratch today, rights of way included, the builder having to contend with all the regulations and restrictions prevalent at this time, it would cost at least one hundred dollars to ship a peck of wheat bran, on said railroad, from St. Louis to Chicago. No doubt my friend exaggerated somewhat, but I would be unwilling to promote such a project hoping to prove him wrong.
With American productivity deteriorating progressively, rank and file citizens as well as leadership in government and business are voicing grave concern about the erosion of this element known as the American will. Even coming late in the game as it has, when our place in the sun is much less secure than it once was, this near universal awakening should be good for the country. I must admit, however, that I would be a great deal more elated if cognizant adults would quit "playing like" they don’t know what’s causing the trouble. This breed has been known to pour water on a drowned man in a sincere effort to revive him.
The lesson of paternalism ought to be unlearned and the better lesson taught that while the people should patriotically and cheerfully support their Government, its functions do not include the support of the people.
Every thoughtful American must realize the importance of checking at its beginning any tendency in public or private station to regard frugality and economy as virtues which we may safely outgrow. The toleration of this idea results in the waste of the people’s money by their chosen servants and encourages prodigality and extravagance in the home life of our countrymen.