The Marshmallow Test

I’ve finally been reading David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. (I’ve known for years that this book was essential reading for anyone interested in the cultural history of the United States, but late is better than never.)

The book is delightfully engaging. I just came across this, in a chapter on the “building ways” of the Scottish, Scots-Irish, and English border-county settlers who populated the Appalachian backcountry (page 656):

The historiography of the log cabin has centered mostly on the history of the log, but at least equally important is the history of the cabin.

What follows is a discussion of the cabin architecture of the violent border regions of northern England and lowland Scotland. This history of violence and uncertainty is key to understanding both the prickly backcountry temperament and the low time-preference that leads people to invest so little in their architecture. Fischer quotes a long-ago historian of Scotland, John Major, who wrote in 1521:

In Scotland, the houses of the country people are small, as it were, cottages, and the reason is this: they have no permanent holdings, but hired only, or in lease for four or five years, at the pleasure of the lord of the soil; therefore do they not dare to build good houses, though stone abound, neither do they plant trees or hedges for their orchards, nor do they dung their land; and this is no small loss and damage to the whole realm.

These folkways persisted in the transplanted settlers of the region. Prosperity that doesn’t come from reaving and conquest can only come from playing the “long game”, and to do so requires low time-preference. If your culture has been shaped by centuries or millennia of rootlessness and instability (at which point, arguably, your genome has been shaped as well), this will not come naturally. The backcountry territory settled by this cohort is still among the poorest areas of the nation.

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One Comment

  1. Whitewall says

    I know many places in those mountains that support this very point.

    Posted October 10, 2017 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

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