But what exactly should we think about it? In this post I share some personal thoughts on that question, and I propose a new concept: SLOW Government.
Not everyone in agriculture is persuaded by the philosophy of Slow. Vermont agriculture is overwhelmingly dairy, mostly non-organic dairy. More than half of our loan portfolio at Yankee is to non-organic family dairy farmers. Most non-organic farmers are skeptical about placing too much emphasis on the philosophy of Slow. (Full disclosure: I grew up on a non-organic five-generation Vermont family dairy farm.)
Our mission at Farm Credit is to serve all of agriculture. How do we balance these competing views within the agricultural community? Almost by definition, most of agriculture is mainstream agriculture. How do we consider the philosophy of Slow without showing disregard and disrespect for mainstream agriculture?
Yankee Farm Credit is a cooperative and for us discussions about these questions will include the farmers who own Yankee; Yankee's board of directors, management and employees; and constituencies outside Yankee. The discussions that occurred at the Middlebury annual meeting earlier this year were part of these discussions. This blog is part of these discussions.
I offer the following thoughts as a contribution to these discussions. I come to these discussions both in my role as president and CEO of Yankee Farm Credit and in my role on the Vermont Agricultural and Forest Products Development Board, but I am just one of many voices in these discussions.
Like all movements, including the Tea Party movement and the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Slow movement includes some good ideas and some bad ideas. Our job, whatever our role, is to separate the wheat from the chaff, the sense from the nonsense.
My approach to that job is indirect. If we start out directly talking about the sense and the nonsense of Slow, people will stake out positions, attacks will be made, defenses will go up, and little will be accomplished. I prefer to start out by talking about what is missing from Slow.
Slow Living, Slow Food and Slow Money are all part of a larger movement. The Wikipedia entry for Slow Movement lists all of these initiatives and many more. How could anything possibly be missing? And yet something important is missing.
What is missing is what I call SLOW Government.
SLOW Government is the opposite of fast government. Fast government seeks to use the power of government to solve more and more of life's problems, resulting in more laws, more regulations, more government programs, more government bureaucracy. SLOW Government first asks the question: Is this a necessary and proper function of government? In a country founded on the principle of limited government, this is a question that we too often fail to ask.
The inspiration for SLOW Government came from one of the principles of Slow Money: "There is such a thing as money that is too fast, companies that are too big, finance that is too complex." (source) I believe that there is such a thing as government that is too fast, too big, and too complex.
A good way to think about SLOW Government is as an acronym, which is why it is capitalized:
S is for sustainable. Primarily I am referring to government finances. Current policies are not sustainable. Cash outflows cannot indefinitely exceed cash inflows. Unfunded promises of future benefits put the sustainability of government itself at risk. Debt cannot increase without limit. We in Farm Credit have some experience in this area. We have experience with borrowers, of course. Not all borrowers succeed; some fail. We also have our own experience. At present the Farm Credit System is highly successful, but the Farm Credit System itself has had several near-death experiences in its long and storied history. We in Farm Credit have some basis for speaking to the issue of what is sustainable and what is not when it comes to finances.
L is for local. Government should be kept as local as possible. We can learn much from Alexis de Tocqueville. This blog has two posts about Alexis de Tocqueville's views on the importance of local government, using New York and China as examples.
O is for organic. In this context I mean something similar to what businesses mean by "organic growth." Organic growth in business is natural, internal growth—as opposed to growth from acquisitions. A corresponding meaning in the context of government is growth that is natural—as opposed to growth from stimulus. In short, organic government is Hayekian, not Keynesian. This blog has two posts about the philosophies of Friedrich Hayek and John Maynard Keynes: the rap version and the non-rap version.
W is for wise. Here I am referring to wisdom in the sense of this proverb from Lao Tzu, the founder of Daoism (or Taoism if you prefer): "To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day." (source) Our political leaders are full of knowledge, and they have added so many things to government that it has become unmanageable. No one can understand the Byzantine complexity of the endless laws, regulations, programs, agencies, departments, boards, etc. that constitute our government. We need political leaders who are rich in wisdom, who will subtract things from government until it is once again manageable.
One of the intellectual fathers of the Slow Movement is Henry David Thoreau. His influential 1849 essay "Civil Disobedience" begins with this sentence:
I heartily accept the motto,—"That government is best which governs least;" and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically.That summarizes what I mean by SLOW Government.
In 2010 I started talking about SLO Agriculture - for Sustainable, Local, and/or Organic Agriculture. (source) Now we need to start talking about SLOW Government - for Sustainable, Local, Organic, and Wise Government. I am not advocating for NO government. I am advocating for government that is more Sustainable, more Local, more Organic, and Wiser than our current government. SLOW Government would be good for agriculture, good for rural America, and good for the country.
The Farm Credit System has been around for nearly 100 years. We are a significant part of the history of financing the production end of the food system, and we will be a significant part of the future—for all of agriculture.