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homesteadI 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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16 replies to this post
  1. Your criticism of the tiny house culture is true, but the same complaints can be made of the sports culture that you replace it with. How about instead, as an entirely different segment of the tiny house market has done, teach autarky? At least then, when this godless satanic culture finally collapses of its own weight, your kids will know how to chop firewood, raise vergetables and livestock, and feed themselves. You cannot eat sports scores.

  2. While I don’t think that I could live in a tiny house for very long, I do believe that this movement is a very positive thing. I think it’s more akin to the conestoga wagon, or the settler’s cabin. Thrift was an early American ideal. Our American forebears would not have dreamed of putting 5% – 20% down, and then obtaining a mortgage that takes 30 years to pay off, consuming 30% – 50% of the family after tax income. Also, our forefathers didn’t pay for college loans, which are economically crippling for young people today. The modern system is rigged to benefit the realtors, banks and the financial establishment. I congratulate the young people who say, “this is my life, and I’ll live to be enriched by experiences, relationships and the world that God gave me, rather than live to enrich the rich.” That is a kind of indentured servitude.

    My husband and I bought one of those suburban homes in the 1990’s, that had enough space for our family, and a small yard. At the time, we were not permitted to have a vegetable garden or shed, according to the HOA.. The bricks were only on the front of the house. Vinyl siding covers the sides and back. Windows, doors, roof, all appliances, driveway, etc. were all so poorly made, that all of it has needed to be replaced bit by bit! Today’s homes that families can afford don’t even last as long as the mortgage does.

    I say three cheers for Yankee ingenuity, for people who have found away around a system that really doesn’t serve people’s needs. And with a tiny house, many can afford to buy a little bit of land on which they can actually have a real homestead!…In a place where no one can tell you that you aren’t allowed to have a garden or chickens. That’s very American, and good for America.

    • My husband and I have often wondered why the people who could put bigger homes to good-use, like a homeschooling family, often can’t get the big homes (or even the moderately sized), and the people who don’t have the big families get the big homes. Well, we know why, but [i]why[/I]? I, for one, would like a little more room to flex. As we’re considering homeschool, some private yard and a dedicated room would be awfully nice.

    • I agree 100%. Certainly the mobility of tiny houses is one aspect, but I’ve understood the affordability of it is the bigger issue, and when you’re not in mountains of debt, you can afford to homestead. There are frequently close connections between tiny house livers and the “yuppie” homesteading movement. And most pioneers would have started out with homes, not much bigger than these, and would have expected them to hold many more people then most tiny housers do. Not spending money on space they dont need they can also afford to buy quality local items and not imported disposable crap from Walmart.

  3. Bruce, you only address part of this complex issue! Yes, I’ll admit that many of your points are/may be valid. But the part you fail to see is that the “traditional life” that had become the standard in this country is not only unobtainable for many people, but also environmentally irresponsible. People do not only choose this life for “adventure” as the media seems to portray… they choose it for economic and environmental reasons. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area; as you well know, housing prices are crazy here. It might be easy to say, “well just move to another part of the country!”. But when family, friends, job (Biotech), are centered here, it becomes extremely difficult to move to Idaho or Ohio. Your arguments are based on a lifestyle that no longer exists on this overcrowed, polluted planet. I don’t advocate driving a tiny house around the country as this wastes resources. I believe THOW should be moved when circumstances necessitate it (loss or change of job).

    • RLS, You sound well-intentioned, and ethics and good stewardship of land are indeed important, but unfortunately you are among the many whose perspective is based on decades of disinformation developed and propagated by the world’s power-elite who have not a single care about nature or ‘the environment’ but only use this subject to entrap and control. The agenda is open now and the supporting facts and connections are piled up and getting higher, but normalcy bias and fear of truth are powerful. It has created an obsession with how much energy you use and even how much C02 you exhale – setting the stage for objectifying your existence as another ‘owned farm animal’. It is real and it is not a story or “conspiracy theory’.. Be brave – wake up and face it and then resist it !

  4. If you want to discover people who’re living even simpler than those in tiny houses, search YouTube for “stealth van.” A vehicle, typically a business-like white van, is converted into a living space that can park places without appearing to have anyone living inside.

    It’s often used by people in construction who must move around a lot or people living on limited incomes in cities like SF where the rent is sky high.

  5. I’m guessing this “Tiny House” thing is just a fad, and like many fads, is just a reaction to a previous fad. In this case, they’re probably reacting to the McMansion fad from a decade or so ago, of people buying large, ostentatious homes that were far bigger and more expensive than they really needed, and hence were more about showing off than anything else.

  6. I’m near retirement and with the economy the way it is, I’ll be lucky to have enough money to cover my basics, and it’s not because I didn’t work or tried to save money, it’s just life circumstances, to long to explain here, but the fact is that I just bought a lot, outside of the city, where I intend to build a small house ( I don’t think 300 sqft would do for me) but a small two bdrm, 1 bath would do, less energy consumption ( live in Canada) and perhaps I can even have a garden and few chickens, mind you, I know at some point I’ll need assistance, but I’m very much looking forward to that lifestyle

  7. I completely agree with Eric. At Apollo’s sanctuary in Delphi were carved the words nothing too much. The trend of buying ever bigger and more ostentatious houses, often for more than one could begin to really afford, disgusted people. So they went, as they tend to do, to the opposite extreme. I seriously doubt most of the people trying out tiny houses will go more than five years before they get sick of them. Perhaps they’ll have a better idea of moderation afterward. But probably not.

  8. So, bigger is better, is it? Look, this is NOT necessarily a bad thing for our country. While some people will go to tiny houses for selfish reasons, can’t this also be said for those who have larger houses, 3 cars and a boat in the drive way, and a few time shares they use regularly? Greed is greed.

    On the other hand? Tiny houses offer an ability for our young, elderly, and poor to own their own houses without paying much in rent.

    I have a growing family and am expecting number 6 soon. I think there is great value in tiny houses, ESPECIALLY since my oldest just turned 18 and is trying to start his life. I don’t expect him to stay in a tiny house forever, no. But, I’d rather him that with his wife (when he gets one) and give him a chance to save up and expand as his family grows than to be burdened by more than he’s ready for.

    Let’s be fair here. This is NOT the ONLY reason for a tiny house. It’s certainly something to be careful of, but then so is it a reason for having too much, too.

  9. The common thread is the return to freedom and individualism. To live without the restrictions and the demands of a complex life (just like the hippie movement of the 60’s). But of course it is an immature desire, because it is an attempt to avoid taking on the responsibilities of providing the things that they want, such as: Smart phones, laptops, electricity, public streets to drive and park on, the parents’ land, protection from theft and even foreign invasion. They want all these things, but they want someone else to provide them.
    Surely this will pass, and some will become productive and some will insist on holding to this dream of ‘money for nothing’. But we don’t want it to pass away entirely – each of us has a desire to fly away from it all – so we can vicariously enjoy the passing fad.

  10. Great article! Another product of the Tiny House movement ( which is so praised by Mainstream Media and Environmentalists ( Double Alert !) is that it adjusts Americans to living to a lower standard of living and smaller “footprint” – eventually in an urban environment or “designated living area” as it is called by the Globalists and UN. The goal is to make us poorer and manage our ‘production’ more efficiently – meaning we get less and are happy with it. They even have this “live in a shipping container” thing being popularized now and they have concepts ( if not models) of cities with modular stacked ‘box buildings’ for the ‘low footprint’ crowd. We are on a track to to be ‘boxed in’ and ‘managed’ going from farmer to ‘farmed’ – this is no secret anymore. People are not waking up in great enough numbers. Every assault on human liberty and rights needs to be exposed and resisted.

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