Friday, June 3, 2011

A Good Book Can Be Dangerous

John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath is one of those rare books that can captivate any reader with a gripping story that compels one to the author's philosophy, which is always whispered just audibly into the mind's ear so subtly that we believe the thoughts to be our own. There is no need to scream, like Ayn Rand, about the hardships and injustices faced by the Joads and the millions of real farmers they represent; the reader's conscience is already aflame long before the book ends or a single mention is made of economic systems, businesses, or the government. Steinbeck's ability to move his reader's passion is created by his undeniable talent as a novelist, the truly difficult position technological advancement can put people into, and mankind's innate desire to side with the underdog, in particular when that underdog has no serious moral failings. What he does not do, however, is tell the whole story. Justice does not always reside with the popular champion, and hard as it may be to challenge the unthinking sensibilities of the masses, we must defend those who are our just benefactors. The Joads may be unjustly treated by Chance or God, but they have not been mistreated by men in the form of corporations and employers.

While set in the same time period as the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath is not actually a book about that phenomena. Rather, this book and the story it tells is brought about by the sheer economic fact that those who cannot keep up with the times are left behind. Mechanization, not tumbling stock prices, is the prime mover behind the Joad's discomfiture. The 1920's and 30's witnessed the introduction of petroleum based machines overtaking hand and horse drawn equipment. As with every new technology, supply always begins off low for these revolutionary machines, and with their ability to create higher profits, demand is high, creating high prices the average person cannot afford. This situation is hardly the result of some conspiracy. It is impossible to create high supply of a new technology overnight; this is just a basic fact. Demand must be high in order to give the producer an incentive to create more. These high prices at first may seem unfair to the layman, but in fact is the catalyst that improves all of our lives.

This, of course, does not alleviate the situation of the Joads. Change, no matter how beneficial it is to many people, is still hard on the old guard that benefited from the old order. Those who produced sails were ruined by the advent of the steam engine; producers of the steam engine were likewise taken over by the internal combustion engine. it is easy to hate the companies that buy up the land the Joads can no longer profitably operate, until we ask what it is the company did that is so evil. Producing cheap and abundant food can only be seen as an evil to one who has never had to deal with an acute shortage of food. Rather than hate the man on the tractor, we should applaud his productivity, of which we benefit. The Joads may have put their blood and sweat into that patch of land for generations, but that does not absolve them from the laws of economic reality. No amount of sentimentality ever can.

Von Mises' book, Human Action, is far less entertaining but far more accurate in describing reality and justice. There is no "right" to never go backwards or to maintain one's place in the world; it must always be earned anew. Steinbeck makes this family particularly sympathetic by showing they have no serious moral flaws and are nice folks. What is not mentioned is that they do not offer much to society, to their fellow men and women, in terms of usefulness. Their farming techniques could not feed as many children as the company's tractors could. Picking fruit is not a rare skill that is in high demand. While it may seem unjust to the Joads and to the reader that these folks should endure such hard times, the simple truth is that the Joads failed to keep up with society's needs and effectively made themselves useless in a most literal sense.

Ironically, John Mellencamp's "Rain on the Scarecrow" unintentionally drives this point home. The protagonist in the song laments the loss of his land that "once fed this nation." Problem is, 300,000,000 Americans cannot be fed on nostalgia. Who fed us is not important; who feeds us today and in the future is. Mellencamp errs in being blunt with his message and accidentally reveals a truth so craftily hidden by Steinbeck.

Steinbeck's book is a must read for multiple reasons. His account is entertaining and masterful, and therein lies the danger we must all guard against. The heart wrenching story is not always the best carrier of the truth and justice. We must beware lest we forget to think for ourselves and abandon our moral judgment to the best poet to woo our hearts.

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