Society Needs More than Entrepreneurs

By Jim Van Der Pol

The season of political noise is upon us and everywhere is heard the words “entrepreneur,” “entrepreneurial,” “entrepreneurship.” These words appear on the tongues of demagogues who seem to have trouble deciding if they should be savored slowly, or swallowed whole. And so, in addition to the matters of stimulus and tax reform and farm legislation, where such words rightfully belong, we get them in description of the actions of heads of regulatory agencies, who “consult with” and “encourage” the industries they are to regulate, or school principals, who achieve school reform by firing experienced teachers wholesale to replace them with underpaid temps and interns fresh out of college. Lacking the nerve to strike out in any new direction, or take a stand on any principle personally, too many politicians appear to admire the entrepreneur for the single minded pursuit of a simple goal and a willingness to cause some misery to get there.

Well, we are entrepreneurs, here on the farms. That is not generally all we are, but if we wish to survive and prosper in the current climate, we need to take risks and operate our farms with profit as a goal. This is especially true if we are smaller in size than the average, or if we are trying to make room for another generation, or if we are breaking new ground in farm linked processing or marketing. We know better than to wait upon the next farm bill or depend and trust too much in the good will of the latest social movement or trend. We have learned that we must be able to depend upon the guy in the mirror and that our best advisors are always our closest family and friends, rather than that smart guy certified by any government or institution.

But we must look around when the politicians lead us by repetition into thinking that the entire world is or could be entrepreneurial and ask whether it really is and, more to the point, if we should want it to be. What would our community be without nurses in it? Or nurse aides, or teachers, or teacher aides, or any of the people doing various jobs around these health and educational institutions for a wage or salary? What about the people operating the library, fixing the roads or clearing them in winter? Consider those getting to work early maintaining the parking ramps, changing the light bulbs in the common areas in our cities, minding the public rest rooms.

How about the people fixing our cars and farm machinery? What about diesel mechanics, parts runners, truck drivers? Since we cannot seem to get to depend solely upon the solar panel for power, what about the coal miners? Consider the iron miners, or those who do the processing and moving of these products. The truth is that many if not most people are not entrepreneurial, do not want to be, and quite probably, ought not to be. And without these people and what they do, our entire society collapses.

Some years ago, I had a parting of the ways with the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) over this question. Their representative had explained to me that they were lobbying against state efforts to extend health care to the working class and working poor on the basis that it was to be financed by a small surcharge against health services in the state. Doctors were entrepreneurs, it was argued, and thus they too were eligible for the support of the NFIB.

This is wrong. We need to get our thinking straight. Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, states at that doctors are paid here at twice the rate of those in western Europe, which certainly goes far to explain the problems with our health care system. Doctors are not really entrepreneurs and it is difficult for me to see how they could be without violating their Hippocratic oath. Neither are dentists or teachers or government agency employees. These folks ought all to be paid very well in compensation of their level of education and skill, but then be expected to get their inspiration and life satisfaction out of something other than the profit motive. And it should not seem vaguely un-American to say something like that. The idea of service as a goal and life ideal was once honored and respected among us, before profit became our only motivator, government employment was smeared by the right wing and entrepreneurship became the only silver bullet and cure for everything that ails us. It is surely impossible to see how a decent government can be run if there are not at least some of our population willing to hold the idea of service in high esteem and make of it a lifetime commitment and goal.

Entrepreneurship as a concept cannot hold as an adequate description of all human life. This can be seen by looking at us farmers, who are entrepreneurs, but are also much more complex than just that. We are family oriented, many of us, community minded as well. We are simply fascinated by the biology of the systems with which we work. We do very much of our work not for profit but because it needs to be done, for the benefit of the farm or the livestock or the land, we say, often without really being able to properly separate the idea of land from the people on it. We find ourselves investing our fortunes, such as they are, and most of our strength late in our working lives, to efforts toward making sure that the farm goes forward, from developing ancillary businesses to building production systems we will not use, to planting seventy and one hundred year trees in the windbreak that we will never sit in the shade of. And we do appreciate security, which often comes to us in the form of the farm bill we love to hate.

We should accept that we farmers, and all of us as Americans, are complex and often contradictory people. If we did that, our politics would make more sense, and we would not go so easily for silver bullet solutions like entrepreneurship. Accepting and understanding ourselves, we might learn once again to reason together with others, forming among ourselves, as our Constitution says, a more perfect Union.

Jim Van Der Pol farms near Kerkhoven, Minn. A collection of his columns, Conversations with the Land, was published by No Bull Press (

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2012

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