I have recently been hearing a great deal about “the tiny house movement.” Trailers for yuppies did not seem like such a big deal to me at first. But the justifications many in this movement have been making for their lifestyle choice have reminded me of some fundamental changes taking place in Americans’ priorities—changes I think bode ill for what is left of our traditional culture.
The basic tiny house argument goes something like this: “We are more interested in having fun and enlightening experiences than in collecting a lot of personal property or building some giant house that will be a lot of trouble to take care of.” Thus, at least judging from the couples featured on Home and Garden Television’s “Tiny House Hunters,” people are trading in their previous homes for what are in essence customized trailers they can park on some land, park on some relatives’ land, or hook up to a truck and take with them around the country. And these often are not just couples; families often are involved in this latest form of adventure living.
It is the “experience vs. possessions” argument that seems to be central to many in the tiny house movement, and that I think is a very real problem for our culture. It is, of course, a standard bit of moralizing to criticize American materialism. The criticism is fair enough, particularly when leveled at people who fixate on the type of wool from which their sport jacket is made, the model car in their garage, and/or the number of bathrooms in their home. But we should not be too quick to cede the moral high-ground to the tiny housers.
First, there is just as much preening going on these days about how small one’s lot can be, how many miles per gallon one’s car gets (thanks to federal subsidies of various sorts), and how many really keen conveniences can be packed into a 300-square-foot “house.” Second, and more important, this second batch of virtue signals is about adhering to a pagan ideology of pseudo-scientific earth worship. The first, more overtly materialistic set of consumption items, on the other hand, rests on a distortion of a genuinely good and important goal: that of founding, building, and perpetuating a family homestead.
Adventure truly is an American good. The call of the open road is real in our nation in a way that it cannot be real in the more crowded, regulated nations of Europe. Americans for centuries have heard the call of the wild, and many of them have answered it, to the benefit of us all. But most Americans recognized the necessary linkage of that wandering to its natural successor: settlement. Trappers and mountain men were succeeded by homesteaders. And those homesteaders did not simply park their wagons for a short while. Many of them were fundamentally unsettled, constantly looking for the greener grass over the mountain. But more sought to build where they (and their communities) found good land and opportunity.
“Homestead” simply refers to a family settlement. In American property law it has been favored by the state in the sense that the family house, land, and outbuildings were given favorable tax treatment and protection from creditors. These benefits were a recognition that the homestead is the natural basis of society. Going back to Aristotle, we in the West have recognized that the “household” is the basic unit of social organization. This unit, encompassing the owner, family, and dependent workers, was the fundamental unit of production (usually, but not always farming) and of political organization because it constituted a tightly interrelated group with common interests, norms, and goals.
In America at least, beginning before the formation of the United States government, those who served on the homestead often had the goal of forming their own. Indentured servants worked off their passage to the New World, then struck out on their own, as did, quite often, other servants. The goal was to achieve an integrated independence. That is, one wanted to be part of a self-governing, largely self-sufficient household that took care of its own and participated in wider community life as one among equals—and potentially first among equals.
There were clear material requirements for founding a homestead. Land cost money—or else was won from the wilderness (or, later, the federal government) through very hard work and persistence. One needed animals, tools, and materials, as well as help from one’s family and, at times, neighbors. The investment of time, effort, and money was considered well worth it because the result would be a good life for oneself, one’s family, and one’s descendants. Material signs of success were important here. Poorer families sought to preserve a few precious, inherited items and add to them over time. Those who achieved material success sought grander expressions in land, house size, and various accoutrements, from books to furniture, to handmade decorative items. It is easy in our era of relative (if declining) abundance to dismiss such trappings as mere materialism. But they were part of the attempt of homesteaders to make their mark, earn respect, and show their children the manner in which hard work’s benefits might accumulate over time. Moreover, even relatively poor households would strive to achieve some modicum of higher culture through possession of books and especially a musical instrument—most importantly a piano, around which the family would sing together, often for hours at a time.
Again, it certainly is true that experiences, and particularly travel, can add greatly to the character of the people involved and benefit society as a whole. Through travel, perspectives are broadened, and young people in particular experience the variety of natural and cultural riches of lands and peoples outside their narrow communities. But tourism is not the essence of learning and does not inculcate the essence of character. Raising a family within a community, attending the kids’ football games or school recitals, teaching the kids the importance of hard work so that they can do well at those games and recitals, helping their teams and making their mentors proud—these are keys to a healthy, lived culture. The rise of urbanization and the misguided effort to force people to increased population density in their suburbs, even as they flee the cities with their families, undermine the homestead. They make it difficult for people to live close to the land—not just for farming, but for the humbler gardening and keeping of small amounts of livestock.
One certainly needs entertainments in an urban environment; living in a large city means living all too close to numberless strangers, making escape a daily necessity. But immediate experience cannot substitute for the development, over time, of the most important community within any nation—which itself is, after all, a community of communities. Rather than downsizing our homesteads, we should consider downsizing our drive to entertain ourselves at the cost of educating our families for the future.
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