All Commentary
Saturday, December 1, 1979

Where There Was a Will

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.


Grover Cleveland

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.

  • Mr. Raley is a free-lance author, speaker, philosopher from Gadsden, Alabama.