walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: February 8, 2013
What’s Wrong and How to Fix It, Part 13: The New Homestead Act

We must enact a “New Pioneering” Homestead Act.

This proposal, the last of the lot, is an even bigger idea than a National Service/Baby Bond program. It is impossible to take seriously now, but it may not be after the foregoing nine reforms have been undertaken. This one has the potential to produce even more new social capital in America than a program of national service. Let me introduce what I have in mind with a brief story.

Not long ago I attended a simulation on infrastructure development as an observer and subcontractor to the convening organization. In attendance in three different cities playing one simulation game were more than a thousand professionals involved principally in transportation infrastructure as engineers, planners, government administrators, businessmen, financiers and so forth. The simulation was designed in part to break down barriers among social segments of the transportation infrastructure system, but part of its method was to encourage participants to think big thoughts in order to overcome projected congestion nightmares leading up to the year 2040. Participants did come up with some bold new ideas, some of them project specific and some of them more conceptual in nature. But not a single idea deviated from the implicit assumption that the population nodal the points now in existence will also be the ones in existence in 2040. In other words, participants construed their challenge as consisting of how to get people and goods efficiently from point A to point B to point C. It never occurred to them that they might change where point B and point C might be.

It does occur to me.

Back in the 1860s the United States government did two remarkable things that help build the country and create social capital: It passed the Homestead Act and the Morrill Act. The first encouraged the settlement of the continent west of the Mississippi River, and the second created the original land-grant colleges. Both embodied the 19th- century definition of the American dream: Families could own their own farms, and express their liberty through self-sufficiency amid rural communities. The land-grant colleges, a Jeffersonian gentry-farmer concept at base, would help them do it. The basic deal was simple: The government would dole out Federal land, and if after five years tenants could show that they had improved the land, they would be given deed to it. While only about 40 percent ever qualified to hold their deed, and while the later attempted cultivation of marginal lands brought with it its own problems (the Dust Bowl, for example), that still constituted a large number of people and a large number of farms and a large number of settlements.

America has been at its best when it has had a pioneering vocation for which to strive. We need to create a new pioneering vocation, so I propose a new Homestead Act and a vast expansion of the land-grant college system. I propose that the Federal government, in conjunction with state and local government and elements of the private sector, create new economic zones for purposes of prototyping new infrastructural, energy, educational, medical, agricultural and commercial design structures. I essentially propose the creation of initially a small number (three seems about right) of new American living spaces, whole integrated communities, carved carefully out of the great mass of federally owned land. Without having to finance a wide range of degraded and increasingly obsolete legacy systems, these prototype zones would apply the very latest and the very smartest technology in an integrated fashion to the whole range of human needs.

Just one easily understood example of what I mean by integrated smart technology should do the trick. Every time there is a major storm large parts of the country lose power, sometimes for days on end. We saw that in the fall with Hurricane Sandy. This is both very expensive and even dangerous. Why does this happen? Largely because we string most of our power and telecommunications lines up in the air on poles. If we were to bury them, like intelligent well-planned communities do in many parts of the world, we could avoid most of these costs. But just like it almost never occurs to transportation infrastructure experts to conceive of a different population stratification pattern than the one we have now, it almost never occurs to government officials and utility operators to get our critical system components down from these stupid, ugly poles.1

Moreover, these days we can use information technology to synchronize, co-locate and make much more efficient the interplay of energy, communications, transportation and sanitation systems. We could get more than the sum of the parts from our array of distributed systems rather than less, as is the case now, and a significant economic productivity boost along with it. I mentioned President Eisenhower above; now I’d like to invoke his successor. If he wanted to, the President could challenge the nation to get this job done, just as President Kennedy challenged the nation to put a man on the moon. But it apparently has never occurred to this President, or to any of his predecessors since JFK, to do any such thing, just it has apparently never occurred to any of their cabinet officials or science advisers to suggest it.

These new prototype zones would also be dedicated to the principle of subsidiarity, which means as much local self-sufficiency as possible––though of course without cutting themselves off from the rest of the country. No one would be locked in or locked out of such zones, and they definitely would not be gated or fenced.

It goes nearly without saying that such ambitious ventures would create an enormous number of jobs building and operating new communities, new hospitals, new schools, new businesses, new transportation systems and power plants and baseball stadiums and art galleries and libraries and all the rest. But do not think of the effort as a mere public works program—far from it. It would need to attract a variety of citizens from various walks of life—agriculturalists as well as bankers, carpenters as well as engineers, machinists as well as artists—the aim being to create functional diversity along both social and age-cohort dimensions. The aim is to create a real and organic, not an artificial and top-down planned community—and most certainly not a utopian or socialist “command” one either. There would be a need for police and the administration of law, there would be profits and taxes and banks and insurance needs, and there would be arguments and tensions aplenty to deal with as always. Would the mini-societies within these zones tend to be liberal or conservative on cultural issues? I don’t know and don’t really care, so long as the community itself is free to develop and argue over these issues.

But these new communities would have greater built-in political autonomy and hence legislative flexibility, within certain bounds of course, to experiment with public policy designs as their experience requires. They would not in any sense be beyond the Constitution, but these prototype experiments should be able to try out new solutions to perennial problems—like drug and alcohol abuse, for example—and the rest of the nation could learn from the results. Same goes for elder-care and assisted living arrangements, health insurance schemes, technology-based political referendum polling, and dozens of other problems we can all think of. It would be an opportunity to try again at innovating management-labor relations by involving workers in ownership relationships.

If I had my way, I’d also try to stimulate a productivity explosion by banning per-hour pay for services (from your plumber, your electrician, your carpenter, your gardener, your lawyer, too) and instead pay for everything on a contractual by-the-job basis. Think about that for a moment in terms of incentive structures, and you’ll see its vast potential for productivity increases. Without the flexibility to innovate not just in hardware by also in social software, so to speak, a major reason for the project would evaporate, because unless human social elements are matched to smart technology solutions, we can’t expect to get viable genuine value out of them.

Such new pioneering zones could not spring up overnight, obviously, and they would have to begin, just as any development has always begun, with a basic and sound economic foundation—whether farming, dairying, mineral extraction and basic manufacturing—depending on location and market opportunities. So this is a long-term project. But the purpose justifies the difficulty and the upfront costs, because that purpose is to show ourselves what we are capable of when we set our minds to it, and when we begin with as much of a clean slate as is reasonable to imagine.

Obviously, to work as prototype zones areas would need to be defined and somehow limited, at least at first, both in terms of area, economic base and population, so the selection of new pioneers would be a key, and possibly a difficult and controversial, task. Incentive structures would have to be carefully designed to get a workable mix of people and skills, but they would have to be like the original Homestead Act in the sense that they must generously reward effort and patience with equity—whether that equity takes the form of a farm, a home, or a business. And like the original, the new Homestead Pioneering Act would pay back upfront investment many times over in increased production and productivity advances.

As difficult politically, if not more so, the balance between the autonomy of these new pioneering zones and their integration with the rest of the country would need to be worked out. To give the experiment a chance to develop, it might be necessary to ban the involvement of certain large corporations (with gross annual receipts above a certain threshold), federally chartered banks and national-scale insurance companies whose behavior could crowd out and distort local initiative.

The expansion of the land-grant college system, the new Morrill Act, would of necessity go way beyond agriculture. To build attractive and successful pioneer prototype zones, with a mix of urban and rural elements, state university consortiums would need to be created and shaped to deal with energy and telecommunications design, education and healthcare, smart architecture and transportation infrastructure, public health and sanitation issues, and more besides. Universities would perforce have to partner with business to realize these designs. Universities would be increasingly in the business of continuing education, too, to fulfill their missions, and would also need to better balance education with training—which, unbeknownst to most Americans, are two different things.

Because of the built-in incentivized attractiveness of these new economic pioneering zones, incentives should in time also grow for good students to focus on science (agronomy, in particular), mathematics and engineering. Secondary schools in new economic zones, for example, would always team-teach science and mathematics: Scientific concepts would be laid out, and then the math needed to do problem sets related to those concepts would be taught; then the next basic scientific concept, then the math necessary to operationalize it; and so on. Creative innovation in all forms, such as experimental STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) schools, would be the watchword of these new pioneering zones.2 So would job-sharing and flex-time arrangements at the office.

But it’s food that, in my view, would be first and foremost in terms of innovative change. My vision is that little by little we turn the United States—and North America too—into the largest, most productive, most beautiful high-participatory, self-sustaining garden in the history of the world. In the process, too, we should state and achieve a national goal of planting a billion trees in a decade—the most cost-effective way to deal with climate change by far, just incidentally. (That is not too hard; it works out to less than four trees per adult American in ten years.) This project would be operationalized under the aegis of the Forest Service and the interior departments of the fifty states, with the assistance of an expanded land-grant college system.

And yes, buried within this vision is a judgment that, contrary to common knowledge, American agriculture today is not efficient when measured in terms of long-term, cost-effective sustainability. Here, too, obvious to students of 18th and early 19th century American history, is the Jeffersonian/Lincolnian vision of Whig agriculture—scientifically infused gentry farming on a large scale.3 Many who suffer from a failure of imagination think this kind of vision is hopelessly antiquated, romantic to the point of absurd, something only a cartoonish Lorax would say. They are wrong; it will only be antiquated when people no longer need food and fresh air. And new pioneering zones, multiplied to scale, may be the only way to create enough middle-class sustaining American jobs to overcome the twin challenges of globalization’s seemingly endless low-wage supplies and automation.

To grasp this vision we need to understand what a garden actually is, something most people haven never really thought about. A garden is, for simplicity’s sake, a perfect union between natural endowments and human volition. There can therefore be both rural and urban gardens—even gardens with relatively large buildings as part of them. Gardening is not an art, for in an art no basic resources are given and defined, and gardening is not a science, for in science all basic realities are given. Gardening is more like a craft, and craft, properly understood as Jefferson and Lincoln, Daniel Webster and Theodore Roosevelt understood it, is the wellspring of a creative and happy society. A garden is an instrumental concept in that it needs human volition, but it limits the instrumental attitude at the same time and merges it with intrinsic value. That is what all craft is about.

America once excelled at craftsmanship, and in many ways it still does. But our people have lost too many touch-skills that nurture mind and soul alike, touch-skills that only make full sense when joined in democratic communities of craftsmen. The ultimate purpose of my new pioneering Homestead Act, therefore, is not just economic or even political, but fully social. My vision is radically post-Fordist: Life and work need to assemble fulfilled personalities whose value is priceless, not machines costing such and so many dollars. The garden concept is critical, in my view, for, as the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor put it, “the instrumental mode of life, by dissolving traditional communities or driving out earlier, less instrumental ways of living with nature, has destroyed matrices in which meaning could formerly flourish. . . . To take an instrumental stance to nature is to cut us off from the sources of meaning in it.”4

I know this proposal will strike many practical people as pie-in-the-sky or just silly. I don’t deny the many problems involved in setting up such a program, but it not silly. Who, for example, would get to decide the parameters of these pioneer homesteading zones? Maybe it is pie-on-the-sky; actually, given the current idea-free zone that now characterizes our political class, I know it is, for the time being at least.5 But every healthy society needs stretch goals, needs a vision for a time when bold new strivings become possible. It’s when a nation stops thinking that it’s really cooked.

If you don’t like my vision or think it practical, so be it; but then what’s your vision for the next America? If you have one, I would love to hear it. We need to talk; we all need to be talking about the future, because the essential prerequisite for fixing our problems is the belief that we can fix them. We have become so dispirited lately, and so without a sense of national purpose really for the first tie in our history, that we have become our own worst enemies. That must change: We have to make American dreaming acceptable in polite company again.

Past Entries:

Part 1: Introduction, and Globalization/Automation

Part 2: Political/Institutional

Part 3: Corruption/Plutocracy

Part 4: Television and Politics

Part 5: The Financial System

Part 6: Tax Reform

Part 7: Health Care

Part 8: Repeal the 17th Amendment

Part 9: Government Design

Part 10: Institutional Reform

Part 11: National Service

Part 12: Relocate the Culture Wars


1I know this is a more complex issue than I make it out to be here. But it is also a lot less complex in principle than others try to make it seem.

2For more on STEM programs in action, see “Taking Up Residency in the Urban STEM Classroom”, NSTA Reports.

3See David Wiesenberg’s essay about the remarkable Louis Bromfield.

4Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Harvard University Press, 1989), p. 500.

5As David Brooks, who attended both the Republican and Democratic conventions in 2012, pointed out, in more than eighty major speeches he sat through he heard not a single actual new programmatic idea from either party—not one. See “Character, Not Audacity”, New York Times, September 7, 2012.

show comments
  • Anthony

    Any viable socio-economic system needs modification/innovation at many points (ours being no exception). Such being the case, your proposals deserve humanly reflection as they relate to both revision and rethinking U.S. socio-economic policies going forward. Further, aspects of this essay imply “thinking outside of box” to meet our post Fordist challenges – to go beyond conventionally approved areas. Nevertheless, removing the sand from our social gears requires public encouragement; yet, Demos generally bars the gate. Rationality and commonsense are not always commonly found. National problem solving as well as state and regional problem solving require not only subsidiarity but also legitimate mobilization of expertise wherever we find it (in whatever color or gender) because our problems are far more complex than the world of Homestead and Morrill Acts. Simply put, your proposals remain mindful of the future and in that respect contributes to American sustainability – investing in ourselves and renewing American prosperity.

  • Jim.

    Fascinating. I think it’s about as likely that one of these new asteroid mining companies will open up space as a frontier, though. You might want to look into that.

  • Jerome

    The reason those power lines are up on poles is because it costs a LOT more to bury them. Maybe you and a thousand or so professionals should get together and simulate wasting tons of money. Oh, wait, you already did that.

  • Brendan Doran

    Who in infrastructure did you talk to before coming to the novel idea it never occured to bury the lines?

    It’s not just money, it’s NIMBY and a host of other government sponsored Luddites blocking it.

    Your basic problem of solving government corruption of everything it touches – not because it’s necessarily intrinsic to government but it IS intrinsic to ours – well you’ve solved it have you not Sir? You pretend it doesn’t exist.

    But of course that doesn’t solve it.

    That’s what’s wrong. And it isn’t fixed by wishing it away.

    The government as we know it must end. Not the era of Big Government is over [and the era of Big Contracting began!]. The government itself as we know it must be over, it’s the principal hurdle to any reform.

    They don’t care about fixing anything but their crooked racketeering. These are gangsters. You do not reform them.

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