No Picnic on the Prairie

You’re stuck in traffic en route to that soccer practice, the radio blaring, cell phone ringing. You’ve had it. You’re tired of the frantic pace of your life. You need to simplify. Live a more grounded, elemental way of life.

Five thousand families had similar thoughts. They wanted to be part of a PBS reality show where three families are chosen to re-create the life of homesteaders in Montana in 1883. No SUVs. No phones. No 9-to-5 grind. Just the quiet rural life in one of the most beautiful places on earth. A place where you can’t count the stars because there are too many of them. A place to work the earth and eat what you’ve grown with your own hands and honest labor. Wood stoves and cotton pants.

The only intrusion of modernity would be the cameras and the availability of modern medical care. The result is six hours of riveting television that PBS calls “Frontier House.”

Maybe they should have called it “Be Careful What You Wish For.”

If you stop and think what you’d miss about 2002 if you were back in 1883, a few obvious things come to mind—toilet paper and indoor plumbing being at the top of the list. You’d also be glad to know that, for safety reasons, the show’s producers won’t let you undergo an 1883 root canal without novocaine. You also won’t be giving birth in 1883 when almost one in every 100 deliveries ended with the death of the mother. And when one in every 10 children failed to live beyond the first year of life.

But after watching the families struggle on “Frontier House,” you learn what really made life difficult in 1883—the amount of time and effort it took to stay alive in a rural setting of near self-sufficiency.

It’s hard work swinging an ax to chop the wood that keeps you warm, that heats your stove, that lets you cook. It’s hard work swinging a long-handled scythe to bring in the hay for your milk cow and your horses. It’s hard work lugging water in a barrel up from the river. Washing clothes requires all the major muscle groups in the back and arms. You sleep long hours because you have to. You’re exhausted.

After watching the people on “Frontier House” living the simple life, you may feel a new affection for your furnace and your refrigerator.

There’s not much time for nature walks in 1883 Montana. Today, we tend to romanticize nature. Nature in 1883 turns out to be an enemy as often as it is an ally. Mercifully for the participating families, the show ends before the arrival of winter. Still, they get a taste of one of the great boot camps of life—the 19th century.

A good chunk of the rest of the world still lives that way. But for those who live in America, “Frontier House” makes us count our blessings.

How did we get here from there? How did we come to a world where even the poorest Americans have a quality of life the people of 1880 would not have dreamed of?

At the heart of any explanation must be what Adam Smith called the “propensity in human nature to truck, barter and exchange one thing for another.” Free markets. Capitalism. The grubby world of profit and loss—what used to be called commerce and we call business.

It is that world that created the appliances that make life easy. It is that world that helped create the wealth that lets so many of us afford those gadgets.

Many forces created that wealth and spread it widely—government regulation, our legal system, our nonprofit sector and tax policy all played a role. But the engine that makes it all possible is business.

Much of our culture sneers at business. Business is full of greedy, grasping philistines. We are told of the great power of corporations and the wealth of their executives. Under capitalism, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

People said the same thing back in the 1880s when they spoke of the corporate giants of their day—the robber barons. They lived like kings. The masses who lived on the farm or who crowded into the cities were desperately poor. The critics concluded that capitalism is cruel —it leads to a world where a handful of rich folks feast at the table; the masses survive on the crumbs. They could not foresee the rest of the story—the world of today where the average American, and even many of the poorest Americans live better than the robber barons of the 19th century.

Hardship in 1880 was surviving the winter. Today it’s surviving without high-speed Internet access. Material well-being is no longer limited to the few. Capitalism is the source of that transformation.

There’s still vast inequality in America today. Bill Gates has a much bigger house than I do. And many Americans struggle economically. But “Frontier House” puts those struggles into perspective. A snapshot of economic well-being doesn’t tell much of the story. The real story unfolds over time.

The rich do get richer under capitalism. But so do the rest of us.

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