Starting a Free Commune Part III: What We Can Learn from the Amish

Anyone who wants to establish an alternative society, libertarian or otherwise, would do well to learn from successful examples. The Amish may not be the first group you think of as an alternative to the current system. Yet they have managed a number of things very cleverly, allowing them to live their way independently of the rest of society for over 200 years. How did they manage to do that, and more importantly, how do they not only survive but thrive?

The Amish are a group of about 350,000 members total, with communities scattered throughout the U.S. and Canada. They are known for their horse drawn buggies, archaic looks and rejection of anything modern. Yet Amish have no central power structure, so each group follows slightly different rules, such as what technology is allowed and what is not. It is a misconception to think that all Amish reject all technology. Things that are permitted among many Amish include agricultural machinery, washing machines (with combustion engines) and landline telephones, provided that they are needed for work. Car use (not ownership) is permitted as even among the strictest orders it is quite acceptable to take a ride or hire a cab. Many Amish work in the outside world, in factories, stores, restaurants. Nowadays farming takes up less than half of the economy.

Within the community Amish speak a form of Swiss German, which ignorant Americans call “Dutch”. They refer to people from the outside world as ‘English’.

The Amish, Mennonites and their predecessors the Anabaptists, believe that only adults should be baptized, as a conscious choice of faith. This view was condemned not only by the Catholic Church but also by reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin. Anabaptists were persecuted in Switzerland, Germany and even in the Dutch Republic several dozen ended up being burned at the stake. The small group of survivors wisely left for the United States at a time when the country was largely unexplored and free. The Amish are a branch of the Mennonites, which are named after a Dutch clergyman, Menno Simons. The main difference between these two groups is the rejection of the outside world and its technology by the Old Order Amish.

The church is central to the Amish, fulfilling the role of legislative and judicial power. That’s an awful lot of power for one institution, so how does one avoid abuse of power? The most important factor is scale: because Amish do not have telephones, and normally travel by horse-drawn cart, Amish communities are small; everything is within walking distance. Because of this, a church community can never have more than a few hundred members. If you don’t like one church, it is usually easy to switch to another that is less strict, or more strict. In other words, there is competition among 2600 church communities.

An Amish church community usually has three ministers and one bishop. When a minister dies or can no longer fulfill his role, every male church member is potentially a candidate. A candidate for minister must be nominated by at least three other members (m/f) of the community, sometimes without his knowledge. Each nominated member draws a lot, so that in the end it is God, or fate, that decides. And since God is infallible, a minister is thus appointed for life. It is a time-consuming position that few members want.
A bishop is chosen by and from the three ministers, also for life. The bishop is the highest authority, but in practice he makes few decisions. When an important decision has to be made, such as changing the rule for allowing a new (agricultural) technique, or correcting a member who has misbehaved, it is done by vote, and a proposal is only adopted by a unanimous decision.
The end-goal is a consensus of all parties, not a vote of 50% + 1. For this is possible in a small community, although it will require a lot of very necessary debate. How else do you want to live with your fellow man?

The executive power, that is the community itself. Each member is responsible for observing the rules and developing initiatives within those rules. It couldn’t be more logical, because why should other people be responsible for your own environment? We are all part of a community, therefore we all must take our part in it, rather than outsourcing it to bureaucracy.

What strict religious communities are often blamed for is indoctrinating the youth and not giving them free choice. But here too the Amish have found a solution: rumspringa (space to jump) . From the age of 14-16 Amish youth get the opportunity to taste the freedom of the outside world, without restrictions. Car, telephone, but also sex and drugs, it’s all reluctantly allowed. By the time one is 20, the young adult is expected to make a choice: be baptized to live within the Amish (with all the rules) or continue living outside. Youth who choose the latter are not ostracized: one remains welcome. In extreme cases the rumspringa period lasts ten years; there is no official limit. What is crystal clear: when one chooses to live in the Amish community it is for life. Violating the rules after one has been baptized often leads to expulsion.
The percentage that chooses a life within the community is surprisingly high: 90% of the youth remains Amish, and of the 10% that chooses a life in the outside world, a large part joins the marginally less strict Mennonites.

What is effectively being presented to Amish youth is a social contract, albeit a contract for life. It is unfortunate that there are no other communities offering such a choice at this time. Being American/German/Dutch is not a choice, simply by being born in a certain country one is expected to follow rules that one never chose to follow.

Family businesses form the heart of the Amish economy: in addition to farms, there are many furniture manufacturers, farm equipment mechanics, home builders and food wholesalers. Self-sufficiency is considered a virtue. What you can make or repair yourself, you don’t have to buy. If you cannot do something yourself, there are neighbors or relatives with whom you can trade favors. A well-known example is the building of a barn with the whole community. Unpaid work that people look forward to, because it is a social event, a celebration.

A particularly interesting aspect of the informal economy is that it is not measurable. Whereas on paper Amish earn little, they still produce and consume many pleasures, not in the least fantastic food straight from the land.
This informal economy is also known outside the Amish but is a thorn in the government’s side. A man who does home repairs in his spare time instead of hiring a professional causes the government to miss out on a taxable transaction. A woman who works to pay for daycare for her children causes the state to rake in three times as much tax as when she would care for her own children. If she cooks for the whole family in the evening, the Chinese takeaway is not called and the taxman loses yet another transaction.

Imagine a neighborhood where people help each other: an informal daycare center, a handyman, regular communal meals, women who do each-others’ hair, some boys who do the garden of the elderly, tools that are exchanged for free and so on. It would result in a huge tax saving and it is completely legal. No wonder the government encourages women to work and has virtually abolished trade schools for boys.

Finally, the Amish detested and ignored by “Big Pharma”: they don’t get vaccinated and they make little use of regular, modern health care, although it is not forbidden. So you might suspect a high infant mortality rate and low life expectancy. Measles and polio running rampant, the elderly dying of diseases that are perfectly treatable … but nothing of the sort: although infant mortality is slightly higher than in the modern world (about 20% more), these are not healthy children who are dying. A baby with a congenital (heart) defect will quickly return to God in the Amish community, but healthy-born children have a similar survival rate as in the outside world, yes without all those vaccines. The elderly become slightly less elderly, but maintain a high quality of life for longer. Among other things, the risk of cancer is 40% lower, type 2 diabetes a rarity, and covid appears to be no problem whatsoever. This is easy to explain: people eat healthier, exercise more than average and being overweight is considered sinful.
Psychological complaints, depression, problems with addiction and suicide are also much less common within the Amish, because they have a large social safety net. That safety net is not perfect, but most “English” people do not have such a thing at all. There is no “opioid epidemic” among the Amish, and xanax, ritalin or prozac are not consumed en masse.
As a result, large-scale medical research is rarely conducted on the Amish. Because healthy people are bad customers for pharmaceutical companies.

Now I don’t want to only praise the Amish here, there are many aspects of their society that don’t merit any praise whatsoever. Growing a beard without a mustache looks particularly hideous to me. Why wear suspenders but not a belt? The strict and sometimes absurd rules of the order are hard on both women and men. Amish also benefit indirectly from a lot of technology and an economy that would never have been developed in a purely Amish world. And as with all strict religious communities, suppressed sexual feelings sometimes surface in very sick ways, where they are obscured as quickly as possible.

But this article is about the things they do well, of which I take note for the creation of a free commune. And when you make up the balance (as Amish teens do) you might just come to the conclusion that, all in all, their society is better than the outside world.

Source material:

Who leads the Amish Church
Persecution of the Anabaptists
The Amish economy
Infant and child death rates among the Old Order Amish
Patterns of mortality in the the Old Order Amish
Low cancer incidence rates in Ohio Amish

One thought on “Starting a Free Commune Part III: What We Can Learn from the Amish

  1. Good article Marnix! I like the “consensus” approach. In Switzerland, even government tries to work on a consensus base and majority vote may be seen as a secondary means of decision-making, however it must be backed by a strong constitution that guarantees fundamental freedoms. A libertarian constitution must, in my opinion, always grant a right of secession. Individually or by group, and foster respect and not rejection for those people that secede.

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