In Rust We Trust: Men and Boys and the Wealth of their Toys

Posted: Oct 31, 2005 12:05 AM

I could never be a Leftist because the Left seems to hate two things that I love: men and American business.

Male-bashing has developed into a full-blown art-form in this country. And strangely enough, the male-bashing is often accompanied by the presumption that men and women are the same in every significant way. No one seems to notice the logical conclusion: if men are bad, and women and men are the same, ergo, women must be bad. But never mind. I love the men and boys in my life, precisely because of the ways in which they differ from me. And many aspects of American business are distinctly “guy things.”  I love these parts of American business too.

These two things, American men and American business came together for me last weekend. My husband and I had a few blessed child-free hours, so we went on a date. We went to the Antique Gas and Steam Engine fair, held two week-ends a year on the grounds of the Museum of the same name, here in Vista, California. Male and female difference number one: My husband went to look at the antique steam engines. I went to look at my husband, and a whole lot of other guys, in their natural habitat.

What kind of machines are we talking about?  Everything from huge steam-driven turbines, large enough to power a city street, to a dinky little engine that runs a butter-churning machine. This museum is a combination of technological history, and Americana. Old gentlemen in blue-striped engineer outfits drove steam-propelled tractors around the grounds, blowing their whistles at imaginary obstacles. Other guys showed off antique farm machinery, that they had restored from a pile of rust. (The theme of this year’s fair was, I kid you not, “In Rust, We Trust.”)
Still others worked in a replica of a blacksmith’s shop, demonstrating the fine points of the blacksmith’s craft.

Strolling through the streets of this antique tractor fair, you could see continual improvements in technology.
Old-fashioned wringer washing machines were on display. You could imagine how welcome a gas-powered agitator would be to a hard-working farm family, accustomed to washing and wringing their clothes by hand. You could see the improvements in farm implements, as a tractor took the place of a horse pulling a plow. Then the ordinary tractor made possible a whole series of more specialized attachments: a disk, a thresher, a combine.

And how did all these improvements come about?  If you just read the history books, you might think it was a series of small miracles that led from the horse-drawn plow to the modern air-conditioned tractor, equipped with TV and computer. In the nineteenth century, close to 80% of America worked in agriculture. Today’s tractors allow a mere 8% of the population to plow the whole Mid West and feed America and much of the world.  But looking around the grounds of this antique tractor museum, I believe I could see how those miracles took place.

My husband truly loves these old machines. Each old engine prompted a story about how some old farmer must have figured out this or that about how to make something or other work better. My husband got excited as he explained to me that once you had figured out how to make a steam engine work, you could use that same engine for many purposes.
You could use a drive belt to connect the engine to your washing machine, or to a saw mill. And he knew people of his grandfather’s generation, who had done just that.  They took the engine they normally used around the farmhouse, up into the woods when they had lumber to mill.
As I watched my husband and the other guys, looking at antique engines with love in their eyes, I realized those men weren’t just looking at old rusty machines. Every man there was filled with admiration for the men who made those machines, admiration for the lives they lived and the lives they made possible. These were once little boys who loved their toy trains and tractors and cars. They grew up to be men who make things happen, who look for a better way, and who figure out, one step at a time, easier and cheaper and safer ways to do things. These are men who honor the past, not by preserving it, but by building on it, improving it.

I am convinced that men like these are the key to understanding the secret of American wealth. This is how all the little miracles of innovation took place. Because they owned their little farms and had the right to any improvements they made, American men had every incentive to find better ways and to share their knowledge with others. These men take pride in the fact that they can confront reality on reality’s terms. They are accountable to reality in a way that no talking head or academic can truly be. Even when I was an academic myself, and even now when I am surrounded by talking heads, I love being married to an engineer. He keeps me grounded.

The American way is about small business and individual initiative. Our country’s system of private property and personal innovation harnesses the unique gifts of men and places those gifts at the service of the common good. We are a rich country because we turn little boys who love tractors into grown-up men who make things work better.