The Definition of Insanity
The history of ideas is the history of man.
—Professor Richard Ely, economist (1938)1
The historian Paul Conkin once wrote that to understand all that happened at Arthurdale, “we need to recapture the unique outlook of 1933, one that made subsistence farming so appealing.”2 The economist Ludwig von Mises argued that the ideas that caused men to act was the be-all and end-all of historical research, calling them “the ultimate data of history beyond which no historical research can go.”3 Essentially, history boils down to the question: What were they thinking?
Sometimes after a particularly boneheaded disaster, people will say of those involved, “They weren’t thinking,” but they are incorrect. Being human, thinking is what defines us; it is in our very nature. All men think, without exception, it’s just that some aren’t very good at it.
The core set of beliefs that all back-to-the-land acolytes needed to hold in their heart were decidedly reactionary—it was a blunt wish to crawl back into an imagined past, only with electric lights, tractors, and indoor plumbing taken along for the ride.
The highest ideal of the back-to-the-land movement was not freedom but material things. For its proponents, the very definition of freedom was a materialistic one. The belief “real freedom is economic”4 was gospel, and resettlement colonies were the road to that Promised Land, since owning your own homestead was the first step toward that freedom.5 For all their ...