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Forty Acres, a Mule, and Repairing Things
November 17, 2023
by William P. Meyers

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Emancipation Promise: Forty Acres and a Mule

After the Civil War, around 1865, it was thought by freed slaves that they would be given 40 acres of land, and a mule. It could be considered compensation for unpaid labor and suffering, or just a fair starting chance. Neither the forty acres nor the mules materialized. Since that day, at least periodically, the phrase Forty Acres and a Mule has stood as a reminder of slavery, promises broken, and the desire for modern reparations for slavery.

Maybe everyone deserves 40 acres (we won't worry about the mules. Perhaps something more modern could be substituted). But times have changed. At the end of the Civil War the population of the United States was about 35 million. Today our population is about 333 million.

The land area of the United States is 3,531,905 square miles. That includes Alaska and other not particularly lovely places to own 40 acres of. There are 640 acres in a square mile. So that means the total acres available for our current population is an astonishing 2.26 billion.

That sounds like a lot, until you divide up among 333 million people. To give 40 acres to each living American would require 13.2 billion acres. In other words, divide up the land equally, and each American would get 6.8 acres.

Still, that is better than most people have currently. Most homeowners live on 1/4 acre lots. Those who live in condominiums usually share much less land per person.

Another problem is that, depending on criteria, about one-half to two-thirds of America is uninhabitable. Building a house would be difficult, growing food would be difficult. Would you take 40 (or 6.8) acres in Alaska? 40 acres of steep mountain terrain? 40 acres of swamp?

There was a time when many American families owned a 40 acre or more farm. That time is long gone. The industrial revolution that began around 1800 in Great Britain, when the global population was around 1 billion, sucked people off farms throughout the 19th century. 82% of our population lives in cities or suburbs. My own (white) family reflects the trend. One great set of great grandparents owned a 80 acre farm. By the end of the Great Depression (1939) none of my grandparents owned any land. About 1961 my parents bought (mostly with a mortgage) a quarter-acre property with a small house. They died on a different quarter-acre property. I now share a 2 acre property with 12 other condo units, so I effectively own less than a quarter acre. And no mule.

Since the Civil Rights Act of 1965 the economic conditions of blackish Americans have improved greatly, but not equally. We now have a black capitalist class, upper middle class, middle middle class, lower middle class, working class, and a sub-class of people ranging from the disabled to the unsuccessfully criminal. I see pretty much the same distribution of European-Americans, except the capitalist and upper middle classes of white people are larger because they have been around longer, accumulating real and cultural capital.

Some people appear to need little help in lifting themselves up. They are willing to work hard and usually smart; they save; they buy a condo or a house. Others can screw up your typical head start in life. Take a few families from the middle class spectrum and you will find a child who will grow up to not work hard or smart, to be a spendthrift and perhaps a drug addict, and who will descend to a lower class, perhaps even into the sub-class.

I don't see much point in demanding that the land my family lost during the Great Depression be given back to me. I see no point in complaining that none of my grandparents left me anything. I was lucky, my father survived his 22 year stint in the Marines, so I grew up in a house. Both my parents worked. I was encouraged in school (up to a point). I am old enough that I saw older African Americans who had been denied fair access to opportunities, but I also was the right age to see young people succeed in life.

A work ethic is worth more than 40 acres and a mule. A human ethic (following the usual rules of ethics, which are almost universal) is worth more than 40 acres and a mule. A public school education is worth more than 40 acres and a mule.

There are many things society can do to make sure everyone has opportunities. We already have many of those things in place. We have public schools, though many could do better, and I think a public college education should be free. We have some welfare, though I have seen too many people happy to shun a work ethic if they could get welfare, while in other cases I have seen inadequate welfare for the genuinely distressed, disabled, or temporarily down-and-out.

There are a lot of problems with American culture right now, but they have developed over time. Drug culture is the worst, and it intersects with party culture. Laziness culture will chew up 40 acres and a mule given to anyone. Anti-education culture. Too-good-to-work at something physical culture. Spendthrift culture. There is no easy way to fix all these cultural issues in one swoop.

We need to be honest about the world. The long-term environmental carrying capacity of the United States is perhaps 35 million. That of the world is perhaps 1 billion. The single most important thing for everyone, of every type, to do is to have only one child. We should put our economic and cultural resources into this next, smaller generation. In about 3 generations people can come back into a healthy equilibrium with the earth. Everyone can then have considerably more than the equivalent of 40 acres and a mule.

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