Saturday, December 13, 2014

A Travelogue in Rural America

This past week I traveled to Sioux Falls, South Dakota to give a continuing education program to the South Dakota Bar Association.  South Dakota lawyers are not required to have continuing education, so those who attend are motivated by the need to provide competent services to their clients, who are often entrepreneurs.  These participants are deeply connected to the reality of doing business in a world where competitive conditions create the parameters of expected behavior.  They need to deliver value to clients who in turn deliver value to their customers.  It is a virtuous cycle.

Our journey to Sioux Falls was so enjoyable because of encounters with people having these value commitments.  We first took a small detour to visit my sister and brother-in-law on their farm in Northwest Iowa.  We traveled off the interstate highway and the typical tourist pathways through rural America. In nearly every town, we find a Casey’s gas station and convenience store run by cheery locals and delivering the products that people need:  gasoline (at a fair price), clean restrooms, coffee, donuts, and other snacks.  I think the employees are cheery because they like being part of a successful team.  Isn’t it always better to work where people are getting their needs met and happily pay the price?  

Other signs of life are also evident in rural America.  Churches were having socials and community events.  The schools had full parking lots and signs with their activities for sports and music.  Local civic clubs were having a fundraiser or a social event around the holidays.  As Charles Murray will tell you in his book Coming Apart (and Alexis de Tocqueville before him will agree), these are signs of cultural prosperity, which have persisted over decades.  Not even televisions, computers, and mass entertainment have been able to extinguish them entirely.

My wife and I paused to imagine the early immigrants to these regions, coming from Scandinavia, Holland, or Germany and bringing their customs from the Old Country along with a willingness to work and to build something together.  They formed families and worked together on farms, which are dotted with their names with “and son” often added as a monument to their legacy of hard work and devotion to growing things from the earth.  Livestock is a big part of the farm ecosystem here, as it permits greater economic rewards through transforming crops into a value-added product (i.e., meat) using home-grown “factories” that consist of cows, sows, ewes, or hens (turkeys and chickens).  The wealth these folks are able to build (and in many cases, it is substantial), was grown little by little, usually with ma, pa, and the young-uns working together. 

And as we know, Nature can be unforgiving.  It does not notice your race, your people and connections, or whether you have “privilege”.  It delivers sun, warmth, wind, rain, hail, snow, and freezing cold equally to everyone.  And everyone has to rise to the challenge.  I admire these people and their accomplishments.  It must have taken a lot of courage to leave the old country and strike out in something new.  But the old country was probably not so great for them.  This one worked out much better.  Liberty produces such wonders.  Once you see the track record of Liberty and what it produces, it is hard to imagine wanting anything else.     

After enjoying a great meal made by my sister (who inherited cooking genes from my mother, who at 91 still dazzles us with her skills) and admiring their beautiful herd of cattle (a product of 40-plus years of excellence),  we journeyed on to Sioux Falls, reaching the city just after dark.  For those fans of “It’s a Wonderful Life”, I think of Sioux Falls as another version of Bedford Falls.  It is architecturally fascinating and at Christmas time the lights add a warm ambiance to a wintery environment. 

Before dinner at our favorite spot (Minerva’s, which I highly recommend), we shopped some of the downtown stores that were open late on Thursday night for Christmas shoppers. Mrs. Murphy’s Irish Gift Store on Phillips Street is run by expatriates (well, Mrs. Murphy is actually English, but we’ll keep that a secret).  They focus on imported goods from their mother country.  I loved everything there and managed to acquire a very fashionable hand-made Irish tweed hat as well as other gift items.  The Murphys exemplify innovation and entrepreneurial spirit in offering gifts that they select to honor the old ways of creativity and craftsmanship.  If you want your Christmas presents to come from a craftsman’s hands, not merely from some factory, call them.  They offer free shipping, too. 

But entrepreneurial challenges do not make for an easy life. The Murphys were working late to serve their customers, but the Swedish gift shop down the street was going out of business.  Not everyone who dares to offer ethnic-oriented goods will have the world beating a path to their door.  But through persistence and engagement, connecting personally with the needs of their customers and bringing something new to the marketplace, the Murphys seem to be doing just fine.  God bless them and help them to prosper (wait- isn’t there an Irish blessing for that – a plaque for sale, perhaps!?!).  And what’s not to love about hand-made Irish hats, socks, sweaters, porcelain, and such things in a mass-produced world!  What a country that embraces diversity and allows it to thrive in the marketplace! 

When the world is losing its bearings, political leaders are talking nonsense, and young people are hoodwinked into protesting without giving much thought to the parameters of what they find to be unjust, it is a relief to find a haven where people simply structure their affairs based on the realities of meeting demands through honest trade.  Political classes may pander to the interests of one group of citizens against another, corrupted by money contributed by special interests, but these folks seem to focus on what matters to their customers, which ultimately inures to the benefit of all. Have you ever noticed that where government is most active in redistributing, the claims of injustice are loudest, but where government is getting out of the way and letting people trade, they seem most happy and contented?  Perhaps there are lessons to be learned here.

As it turns out, free markets and property rights work pretty well when we give them a chance.  I wish that the rest of America could witness these truths and the beauty they can produce.  How about booking a vacation (or a field trip) to rural America? 


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