Learning is Caring: An Agrarian Origin of American Individualism

I am looking forward to reading this one, from Itzchak Tzachi Raz, who is on the job market from Harvard this year:

This study examines the historical origins of American individualism. I test the hypothesis that local heterogeneity of the physical environment limited the ability of farmers on the American frontier to learn from their successful neighbors, turning them into self-reliant and individualistic people. Consistent with this hypothesis, I find that current residents of counties with higher agrarian heterogeneity are more culturally individualistic, less religious, and have weaker family ties. They are also more likely to support economically progressive policies, to have positive attitudes toward immigrants, and to identify with the Democratic Party. Similarly, counties with higher environmental heterogeneity had higher taxes and a higher provision of public institutions during the 19th century. This pattern is consistent with the substitutability of formal and informal institutions as means to solve collective action problems, and with the association between “communal” values and conservative policies. These findings also suggest that, while understudied, social learning is an important determinant of individualism.

Here is the home page, the paper is not yet available.  Here is his actual job market paper, on adverse possession.  I do hope the author lets me know once this paper is ready, I am very much looking forward to reading it.


Interesting stuff, but as they say, correlation does not prove causation. There are a thousand other explanations for why agriculture heterogeneity might correlate with certain political views, assuming it even actually does, and the thesis here isn't necessarily the most likely one.

I wish authors would put examples of what they are talking about in their abstracts. The concept of "agrarian heterogeneity" is not self-explaining. Including an example of a place that is high in agrarian heterogenetic and individualism and contrasting it with an example of a place that is low in both would make the abstract less of an enigma.

My assumption is that, because they specify "heterogeneity of the physical environment", that they mean local landforms, surface water, and whatever else, terroir or whatnot.

As opposed to a big flat plain or big marshy delta where everyone in the area faces the same physical conditions.


I wouldn't hire someone who makes such uncritical use of "progressive" and "positive". Why, such an uncritical intellect might be prone to neglect potential confounding factors, as alluded to by Pipsterate.

Where there are hills, there are often hill people. The local type, who leapfrogged hundreds of miles over productive soil to get here, were a simultaneously clannish and fiercely individualistic people known as cedar choppers. Feared and judged, violent and immune to education. The sort better folk thought of as shiftless, and it's true that they didn't seem terribly interested in working at things other people might want them to work at, like growing a garden, or building tidy, respectable-looking habitations, or working the hours that would yield wages enough to shoe their children. But they were also universally described as tough as nails, and amazingly strong and fast and deft, despite their look of being ill-fed, at their preferred labors of chopping and stripping cedar posts, making charcoal when that was a thing, and frequently operating stills.

Later on, their independence did not prevent one set from twice pausing, in the recollection of a postman whose route included the hills and hollers, in the midst of firefights to let him deposit the mail, because it might include a check from the government.

And then supposedly, they all just disappeared, blended in.

Currently the hot topic hereabouts is the quite-recent emergence of all these homeless people camping in tents and more-than-tents all over the place, in locations that, shall we say, people accustomed to a certain level of civic orderliness, rather expect to be *empty* and free of trash.

On the NextDoor, the neighbors are arguing about whether they are drug addicts, whether they come from here or are being drawn here, whether they've been here all along but were hiding, whether they are mentally ill, whether they are not mentally ill but experiencing a catastrophic loss of family just like any one of us could, "there but for the grace ...," whether they are utterly ordinary folks who are finding the rent a little high, who would otherwise totally join the rest of us in bourgeois conformity.

Their looks - well, they don't look precisely urban. They don't look like they were working in the tech sector or at the university before succumbing to personal demons. They don't look especially miserable. They seem pretty resourceful. They routinely reject a bed in the shelter, despite which the mayor hopes to gift each of them an apartment. Indeed, they have a decidedly "country"-ish look about them. Above all, when they're in command of their faculties, the attitude on their faces - reflects not ... deference or humility but an insouciant f**k you as they're suddenly, languidly wheeling a banana-seat bike in front of the traffic that has just entered the intersection on green.

They actually - at least the Anglo ones, which many, maybe most, of them seem to be - look not a little bit like the folks in the old pictures in my history of cedar choppers.

But (of course!) we're to understand those people are gone, just vanished, or suddenly did a 180 and joined the rat race.

Interesting, IIRC you're in Texas? Homelessness has been decreasing in the US for years, albeit with some recent small increases.

But the measured numbers, as well as the visibility, of homeless people have grown considerably in all of the major west coast cities (maybe not San Diego, I don't seem to see articles about homeless people there).

I.e. in some places in the US, homelessness is increasing while in others it's decreasing. I'm not sure where the decreasing places are, I wouldn't have been surprised if the answer is: everywhere but the west coast.

But evidently it's increasing where you live too.

This is not a city that, at the moment, is led by people who would have an interest in knowing the numbers, so I wouldn't trouble to look them up. Definitely increasing, and its character has changed. We years ago learned to quit saying "transients," but in this case the language enforcers predicted the future: they're no longer very transient, they don't live out of a backpack, and they're not trying to blend in and deflect from the fact of their being homeless. They must have recognized norms were changing, in the direction they always change, and that there's a cultural wedge they can exploit, between those who would prefer the city litter-free, obvious-drugged-out-behavior-free, civic spaces for their intended purpose, not for camping, etc. ... and those who, to their credit I suppose, couldn't care less about the foregoing, and further seem to like the element of big-city grittiness the newly-aggressive homeless offer, as well as the scope for self-expression (magnanimity) the whole thing occasions for themselves.

Portland, OR's homeless have been living in encampments for some time, but they've become more numerous or more visible in the last 5-6 years. Like the homeless that you describe, they're largely white (as is Portland itself), but they presumably don't have the hill people background. There are plenty of rundown rural and exurban areas in the Pacific NW, most of them hilly, but they don't have the same sense of isolation that say Appalachia does, and somewhat less of a culture of feuds, violence, moonshining, etc.

So some similarities and some differences from what you describe in your region.

Is the idea that in southern China, practically every farmer was a rice farmer but in the U.S., farmers on the frontier had to do a little corn-growing, a little cattle-raising, and a little moon-shining? Maybe ... Maybe not ...

What was the most individualist part of the U.S.? New Hampshire? West Virginia? California? What's the least individualist state? Wisconsin? Iowa?

One of my readers once sent me an ethnography he'd done of southern Indiana rural counties. Most were not very prosperous, not terribly cooperative, and mostly Scots-Irish in their early settlers. One county, however, was mostly of German origin and had consistently better social statistics today.

He said Scots-Irish settlers tended to buy cheap land of marginal fertility from which they could make a little money by a variety of different agricultural strategies, none of them requiring consistently intense effort. The German settlers, in contrast, tended to pay more for rich river bottom land and then engage in intensive agriculture.

The Scots-Irish counties tended to remain somewhat surly and uncooperative, while the one German county to this day tended to have better maintained roads and the like.

In general, his findings were in sync with "Albion's Seed."

Have you committed all three volumes of Albion's Seed to memory, much less read them, SS? As for the paper, colonial populations in the USA were small, something like 5M people or less existed in 1800, so anything can happen with small sample sizes. That's why Mongolia has one of the highest IQ scores among all countries (Singapore being another one). That and perhaps the seed of Ghengis Khan, if you think, like many Mongolians do, that he was a genius.

It’s been some years since I read Albion’s Seed, but one of the things that stuck with me was the persistence of social attitudes - differences in, for example attitudes toward education, that existed in different parts of England that provided the settlers were/are still evident among their descendants in the US, generations later.

I believe agricultural heterogenity means "Potato farmers, next to swine farmers, next to cattle farmers, next to wheat farmers, etc.".

Essentially rather than farmers being focused on the same product and direct competitors or collaborators (inc. teacher-student relationships), they are more nucleated and un-involved with each other outside formal institutitions.

Hence preference for combination of more atomized social policy and more sharing of resources via state taxation rather than via social and kin networks (as in authors' parlance "the substitutability of formal and informal institutions").

Aka "Progressive".

A person may support a strong social safety net, and yet never vote for a democrat because democrats are anti-gun, anti-talk-radio, anti-homeschooling, anti-smoking, anti-video games, etc.

If you could have a libertarian welfare state . . .

People here keep using that word (libertarian), I don't think it means what they think it means.

I'm a person that believes charity is a private matter.

I never voted Democrat because I could never find one that is not bat shit crazy.

Step away from that keyboard. You're drunk.

If they are so self-reliant, why do Midwest farmers continue to sop up all the free bailout money from taxpayers? The Midwest gets bailouts under every President it seems. Bush gives Detroit a bailout, Obama does cash for clunkers, and Trump hands out bags of cash to farmers. For a self-effacing bunch, they've completely flaunted their electoral power in less than humble and self-reliant ways.


Apparently they were forced to be more self-reliant but preferred otherwise much like many single mothers, and like them look to the government as a substitute for the lack of husband/community.

The Iowa Caucuses

Interesting idea, I'm still trying to evaluate it. Aside from the heterogeneity of the physical environment, I wonder if heterogeneity of choices of output, technique, and technology might also be correlated with cultural individualism? I'm thinking of a region where every farmer is growing the same old stuff -- wheat or soybeans or corn or whatever -- versus a similar region where farmers are growing different crops, maybe some are choosing high cost but high value crops for the local foodie market, some are choosing organic farming techniques, etc.

OTOH even if there is a correlation, there's still the question of causality, as Pipsterate notes in their comment.

heterogeneity: n. the quality or state of consisting of dissimilar or diverse elements

I quoted Webster's above but I can't reconcile that with "agrarian heterogeneity." Is that referring to the mix of crops grown as a number of Google searches are telling me or to the types of land as the other two uses of word in the excerpt seem to suggest? Or did I prematurely rule out social and cultural milieu which is also hinted at in the second sentence?

Like I said, there is this thing called "examples" which can be highly useful in conveying what you are talking about. One of my techniques for understanding a topic is to rank order all the examples and then look for what the top and bottom items have in common. For example, I usually can make more sense out of Raj Chetty's data dumps than Raj can because I put his results in in rank order and then ask myself questions that he never does, like why is the most upwardly mobile county in the U.S. Sioux County, Iowa and the most downwardly mobile the Sioux Indian reservation in South Dakota:


So the areas with historically more "big government" tend to vote for Republican parties? Maybe they just have more experience of how government works?

Yes, the finding is counter-intuitive, which may explain the reaction from readers. One explanation is that folks who are "self-reliant and individualistic" learn just how hard it is "to solve collective action problems".

Down here in the South we don't do progressive policies. I suppose that has more to do with race than on than the best way "to solve collective action problems". Poor whites have always had a hard scrabble existence, the difference between poor whites and poor blacks the color of their skin. The area and the people who have been here a long time derive from a plantation culture. Indeed, areas are still identified by the slave plantation once located there, and one can still see the remains of the plantation homes and the tabby slave cabins and the canals along the coast in which the plantations grew/irrigated rice. Low taxes and weak government were the "social learning" of the area: the plantations and their owners were the government. Of course, weak government and corrupt government often coincide.

I once commented to my mid-western friend the similarities between mid-westerners and southerners, in particular the importance placed on being polite. He responded that there is a difference: with mid-westerners, it's sincere. Mid-westerners and southerners have very different "social learning", even if superficially they may appear similar.

"He responded that there is a difference: with mid-westerners, it's sincere"

So true. A bit of a surprise when you move South. Was also a shock how much it mattered who your family was. Your individual achievements and character didn't matter that much if you were viewed as coming from bad family.


Steve, you have a lot to learn. Southern (women) don't identify someone as from a "bad" family, only from a "good" family. My former wife, who was from a "good" family, when meeting someone new, would engage in a discussion of lineage until, finally, the family connection. That's because everyone in South Carolina is related; indeed, even today, first cousins can marry. You have a lot to learn.

Interesting. Modern society has a very high degree of heterogeneity; many people have a different career entirely from all of their neighbors and may have careers that didn’t even exist in their parents’ era. And it seems that the most successful people today are entrepreneurs who followed their own path rather than the one laid out by others. In other words, people more and more have to figure out how to navigate the world themselves; this both creates liberal individualistic values, and makes people who hold such values more likely to succeed.

Seems like most successful people relative to skill level tend to have family members who were previously successful, and in fact follow the path paid down by parents or extended family. Even among entrepreneurs.

"liberal individualistic values": looking from the other side of the Atlantic, the American use of "liberal" seems to imply illiberal, anti-individualistic.

The liberal individualistic values of the agrarian US seem to be accepted as a given with no real proof that such is the case. In fact, the opposite appears to be true. One is more likely to be able to predict the values, ideas and opinions of rural mid-Americans than residents of any other part of the country.

In Canada the agrarian provinces of the west always have had different politics from the east. The agriculture is similar to what is described in the paper, with farms isolated by distance. Out of that situation came the NDP and socialized health care, the Social Credit parties and the Wheat Board. Now those farming areas have very few people, so the politics are different.

So the author will just toss aside intellectual history, the enlightenment, Thomas Paine, history of kings violating individual rights, and just chalk it up to some sort of geographical determinism? Ideas drive culture. Sure one could make a case that people from some immigrant groups have cultures more pro-individualism than others. US individualism of the past may have been peak individualism, sadly, despite Ayn Rand's efforts to bring a renaissance.

That the cited author hails from Harvard tells us something about how Harvard minds are made: dismissive not only of intellectual history but of history generally (I scanned the excerpt closely, at least twice, and did not spy the word "Protestant" the first time [I do still put some stock in Mircea Eliade's 1978 assertion that "the history of religions and religious ethnology are of a much more urgent usefulness in the politics of today than are economics or sociology"].).

"The American frontier" is confidently cited: but which one(s)? "The American frontier during the 19th century"? --again: which one(s)?

(As notable as its 19th century frontiers, 19th century America was also beset for most of the century by an enduring domestic dispute not resolved in part until at least 1876.)

How was American individualism shaped by encounters with rampaging Native Americans not keen to watch American settlers invade their homelands? (Perhaps apt lessons in the development of American individualism could be found in the history of Minnesota's Sioux Uprising in 1862.)

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Harvard continues to acquire all the hallmarks of cosmopolitan provincialism it hasn't already attained.

How does one measure “individualism” and “self-reliance”? I think that I am a very independent thinker, and all the independent
thinkers that I know agree with me, but I don’t know of an objective measure of this.

There is a reason that the official slogan of the economics trade is “ Totum orbem termite tumulum”

Be nice to know the time frame. I wonder whether he considers the rise of USDA's agricultural extension service, which tried to spread research findings by enlisting successful farmers to spread the best practices to their neighbors. IIRC the extension service started in the South but quickly spread across the country.

I think it was simply a matter of owning your own land and being your own boss. Their was a certain pride and status to that, especially if you were from feudal-like Europe. But the work was back-breaking; the only thing most people knew how to do with any success. Young people I knew couldn't wait to leave the farm. John Adams loved farming before politics.

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