All Commentary
Wednesday, November 1, 1989

Lime: E. B. White and Self-Reliance


Mr. Kuhne is an attorney in Amarillo, Texas.

E. B. White (1899-1985) was one of the finest essayists of this century. Perhaps best known as the author of the children’s book Charlotte’s Web, White was also a superb nonfiction writer. His pieces (many of which were clearly tongue-in-cheek) appeared regularly in The New Yorker, where he worked as an editor, and in Harper’s, where he submitted monthly columns as a free-lancer.

Eventually White left New York City to live on a farm in coastal Maine, where he did some of his most brilliant work. A collection of his essays, One Man’s Meat, contains a short piece entitled “Lime,” written in November 1940. The subject of this article was the allotment of ground limestone that White received as a farmer, free of charge from the government, under one of the many New Deal programs.

White took the three tons of lime, which he sprinkled on the soil of his upper field to improve its alkalinity. But in the process, he admits to some misgivings for having done so.

As he cogently points out in this essay, the lime he received from the government was in effect a gift to him from all the taxpayers of the country (whether they liked it or not). He uses the provocative analogy that as he was spreading the lime on his fields, the federal government was spreading the cost over its citizens.

The well-worn rationale for such a handout, of course, is that the fertility of the soil is a national concern—one that affects everyone—and therefore the Federal program will benefit all of us. But White sees problems with the logical extension of this type of thinking: “. . . I believe it also is true that a government committed to the policy of improving the nation by improving the condition of some of the individuals will eventually run into trouble in attempting to distinguish between a national good and a chocolate sundae.”

He continues: “I think that one hazard of the ‘benefit’ form of government is the likelihood that there will be an indefinite extension of benefits, each new one establishing an easy precedent for the next.”

After all, says White, think of the women who want a permanent wave for their hair. It could be argued that the satisfaction of that need is also a national good. Then the government would provide free permanent waves in the belief that the public wants them and that they provide valuable employment for hairdressers.

Government provision of goods and services eventually leads to a nation of people who depend on the government for their every want and need. Even White felt the pressure to demand more. “I seemed to have lost a little of my grip on life. I felt that something inside me, some intangible substance, was leaching away. I also detected a slight sense of being under obligation to somebody, and this, instead of arousing my gratitude, took the form of mild resentment—the characteristic attitude of a person who has had a favor done him whether he liked it or not.”

White was losing touch with his self reliance—just as anyone does when he comes to depend on government handouts. Self-reliance, a characteristic strongly valued before the New Deal, has declined in importance as government entitlement programs have grown. We shouldn’t be surprised.