Amish Law: Different from ours

Legal Systems Very Different from Ours: The Amish

…the Amish have done surprisingly well in their relations with the US government. In 1955 Social Security became mandatory for self-employed persons. The Amish objected to participating, in part on the basis that they believed they were religiously obligated to take care of each other and should not be transferring that obligation to the state, in part on the grounds that insurance programs, which Social Security at purported to be… are “gambling ventures that seek to plan and protect one’s fortune rather than yielding it to God’s will.” Many refused to pay Social Security taxes, with the result that the IRS eventually began filing liens on farm animals and other assets. The conflict was only ended in 1965, when federal legislation exempted self-employed Amish from having to pay Social Security taxes, an exemption later extended to Amish employees in Amish owned businesses.

51ta-us7crlWelcome back to our discussion of Legal Systems Very Different from Ours., by Friedman, Leeson, and Skarbek. I apologize if today’s post is a bit rushed; I have been extremely busy lately with the homeschooling and normal parenting and it has left me asleep during my normal writing hours.

Today we are discussing the Amish. (Have I written anything significant on the Amish? A quick browse through the archives suggests only in passing.) The Amish, as I’m sure you already know, are one of America’s fastest growing religious groups in an era when most other Christian denominations are shrinking:

Amish Population:

1920 5,000
1928 7,000 +4.30%
1936 9,000 +3.19%
1944 13,000 +4.70%
1952 19,000 +4.86%
1960 28,000 +4.97%
1968 39,000 +4.23%
1976 57,000 +4.86%
1984 84,000 +4.97%
1992 128,150 +5.42%
2000 166,000 +3.29%
2010 249,500 +4.16%
2019 341,900 +3.56%

(Source: Wikipedia)

This growth has continued despite the fact that almost no one converts to Amish-ism, the Amish lifestyle involves a ton of manual labor that most people assume is unpleasant, and a decent percent of Amish children leave the faith each generation.

To be Amish, one must simultaneously abide by two legal systems: The US system and the Amish system. This sounds rather annoying to most non-Amish, who find the US system alone laws enough. The Amish have no prisons, though, so the authors discuss how the Amish effectively enforce Amish law:

While subject, with a few narrow exceptions, to U.S. and Canadian law, the Amish have succeeded in maintaining their own systems f rules (Ordnung) and enforcing them on heir members, ultimately by the threat of excommunication and sunning (Meidung).

Slightly aside: We talk a lot in these legal discussions about coercion, which obviously gets people to put up with annoying laws, and last week we discussed the desire of people like the Gypsies to be around their own families, which also encourages them to follow the rules of their parallel legal system, but it occurs to me that a group like the Amish have a third factor, which is that being Amish effectively shields them from a lot of the inconvenience, legal or otherwise, that the rest of us have to deal with.

For example, you, office slave, may be “on call” even in the evening and weekends. Your boss may email you with a sudden, “must be done now” project on Friday evening or expect you to come in on Saturdays. I remember many Saturday mornings spent coloring under my mother’s desk while she worked.

The Amish have to muck out a lot of stalls, but they don’t have to spend much time dealing with the IRS or filling out tax forms; it’s a trade-off between labor-saving technology and paperwork.

Which means that the Amish, in order to keep doing their Amish thing, have to make sure that the borders of Amish-dom, which protect them from the evils of paperwork and enmeshment in annoyingly non-amish systems, have to be defended. And the borders of Amishdom are, of course, which technology you use.

If that sounds a little recursive, let me try again:

Being Amish confers certain benefits on the Amish that they enjoy, like not doing a lot of paperwork and getting to be around other Amish people

Some of these benefits are informal (friendships), some are practical/functional, and some are legal (ie, leaving school early).

The Amish only get to enjoy these benefits if they stay Amish. If the fringes of what it means to be Amish start to fray, then “Amish” loses some of its meaning and the benefits slip away.

As a result, the Amish are very careful about which new technologies they allow, checking carefully how the technology will change their lives.

The basic unit of an Amish community is the congregation, typically of twenty-five to forty households; there is no higher level with authority over the individual congregation. Since the Amish are unwilling to build churches or meeting houses, the number of households in a congregation is limited to the number that will fit in a large farmhouse or barn.

Wait, they don’t have churches? What do they do at church? How does this work?

Each congregation has its own version of the Ordnung, some stricter and some less strict… Congregations whose Ordnungen are about equally strict may be in fellowship with each other, making them part of a single affiliation…

The typical congregation has a bishop, two ministers, and a deacon all of whom normally serve for life and none of whom have an formal training. They are unpaid. Ministers and deacons are selected by lot out of a group of ten men nominated by the congregation…

How does this organizational structure work? Is there any formal structure? Any organization that formally owns property, or is it all hosted in privately owned barns?

The Ordnung specifies the rules that members of the congregation are required to live by. Typically they include prohibitions on activities such as filing a suit, serving on a jury or joining a political organization, along with the use of those modern technologies viewed as likely to disrupt the Amish social system…

Basically, nothing that would enmesh you or other Amish with the outside world.

The ordnung is specific to the congregation, which has no legislature. What changes the ordnung is the practice of the members and the response to it by the leadership.

There is very little overt coercion in this system (though possibly plenty of soft coercion). Should someone break the rules (say, by riding in a car or wearing modern clothes,) they’ll first be visited by the church authorities and encouraged to confess their sins. If that doesn’t work, they’ll be encouraged to confess some more, and if that doesn’t work, everyone will avoid them for six weeks.

If that still doesn’t work, they’ll be kicked completely out of the community and shunned.

On the one hand, getting shunned isn’t nearly as bad as going to prison, but on the other hand, losing all of your friends and not being able to talk to your family just because you want to drive a car is pretty harsh.

The authors ask whether the Amish can be described as a democracy or a competitive dictatorship:

If it is a dictatorship, it is a competitive dictatorship. A member who is sufficiently unhappy with the ordnung of his congregation … is free to shift to a nearby congregation better suited to his tastes. Some congregations are, in effect, territorial sovereigns, so that changing congregations requires a geographical move. In other communities, especially where there are congregations with substantially different Ordnungen near each other, it may be possible to shift allegiance with no shift of residence.

The Amish get on reasonably well with the outside world:

Romani in most places have been subject to hostility from outsiders and themselves regarded outsiders as ignorant and unclean. The Amish, in contrast, appear to get along with their neighbors… Non-Amish may view hem as quaint, but for the most part without hostility and even with some admiration.

That’s because the Amish don’t steal chickens and their communities aren’t trash-filled ghettos.

You know, the authors state in the introduction or thereabouts that each of the legal systems discussed in the book are valid systems that have worked for the people in them (otherwise they wouldn’t exist) but frankly, I don’t think the Gypsy system works all that well for the people in it.

Anyway, the authors propose that people’s generally positive perceptions of the Amish account for their decent relationships with the state, including legal exemptions such as not being required to pay Social Security taxes, exemption from the draft, and leaving school after eighth grade. I think it’s more that the Amish are competent, orderly, and well-behaved, which both makes people generally favorable toward them and equips them to push back against government intrusion into their lives.

To be fair, Gypsies probably also manage to avoid paying Social Security taxes, evade the draft, and drop out of school early, just via less legal means.

Since people generally like the Amish, according to the authors, they have good relations with their neighbors:

Some non-Amish operate “Amish taxi services,” providing automobile or van transportation for Amish when they need to go farther than horse and buggy can conveniently carry them…

In an earlier chapter, I suggested that in North America toleration might eventually destroy the status of the Romani as self-governing communities by making it too easy for unhappy or ostracized members to defect into the surrounding community. Along similar lines, it is arguable that the emancipation of European Jews, starting in the late eighteenth century, was responsible for the decline of the Jewish communities as effectively self-ruling polities. Yet the Amish have maintained their identity, culture, and ordnung, enforcing the latter by threat of ostracism, despite the lack of any clear barrier to prevent unhappy or excommunicated members from deserting.

Despite… or because? As the Amish who don’t want to be Amish depart, those left behind are the ones who most want to be Amish. It’s a kind of sifting, natural selection in action: over time, the less Amish leave and the Amish themselves become more intensely “Amish.”

Denominational switching among Jewish Americans, courtesy of the Pew Research Center

The same process is at work in Orthodox Jews, who have enough children that the defection of  50% or so of them each generation to less rule-oriented strains of Judaism (and from there, to atheism and assimilation) still leaves behind a growing core of people who effectively decided to stay Orthodox.

A similar process could happen for the Gypsies; I know nothing about their population numbers.

The same process has certainly happened for various regions of the US and on a smaller scale, black communities. Rural communities have lost people to cities, leaving behind the people most inclined toward rural lifestyles or least capable of moving to a city; racial integration has seen the smartest black kids move from formerly segregated black communities to college and then careers. We could expand this pattern to the global level, with people from various countries immigrating to new homes in other countries.

This proposes an interesting pattern for modern life: the flow of people who are less-ideal members of their own group into a kind of vast, undifferentiated city-fied middle, while the groups on the edges, the ones that lose members, become culturally (and biologically, for that matter,) more and more distinct. (Is this… happening with trans people, too?)

In the Amish case, this seems to work because they produce enough children to keep the numbers in their favor and as far as I know, aren’t just losing their smart people. (High rates of defection by your smartest will turn your group into into idiots over time.)

A critic of he Amish might argue that their upbringing, with schooling ending in eighth grade, leaves potential defectors unqualified for life in the modern world. The obvious response is that there are a lot of jobs in the modern world for which the willingness to work and the training produced by an apprenticeship starting at age fourteen are better qualifications than a highschool diploma.

Plenty of Hispanics leave their families behind, and move to America with less than an 8th grade education + apprenticeship, and still find jobs–and they have to learn a whole new language and deal with the complexities of being international immigrants. Unhappy Amish can just move to Mennonite communities.

As some evidence of the adequacy of Amish education, Amish seem to do quite well at starting and running their own small-scale businesses.

Amish education isn’t that different from what everyone’s education looked like back when the guys who built nukes and sent rockets to the moon were in school. People massively over-rate the importance of highschool and college degrees for pretty much everyone whose career doesn’t require advanced maths or medicine. People observe that smart people tend to have degrees, and so assume that it’s he degrees that make them smart, just as you might observe that rich people have yachts, and therefore yachts make people rich.

The Amish know they don’t need these advanced degrees to do the same kinds of farm work that people were doing without them back in the eighteen hundreds, so they simply avoid them. Not having to save up 40k-200k per child for college (or pay for houses in “good neighborhoods” “for the schools”) allows the Amish to invest more resources into actually producing children, which is why folks leading a “subsistence lifestyle” doing backbreaking labor all day who never even saw a highschool can “afford” more children than you, a person living in a modern industrial city.

Modernity selects for those who resist it.

Of course, the Amish lifestyle isn’t perfect and it is probably coercive in various ways. I don’t know; I haven’t heard any exposes of Amish–dom in the same way that I’ve heard people from various more “normal” evangelical Christian type cults complain about their upbringings. This is probably because the Amish are an older and more stable group that has settled into patterns that are basically beneficial toward their members, whereas new religious groupings tend to turn exploitative and flame out within a couple of decades.

That’s all for today. What did you think? Has anyone ever met any Amish? Are you ex-Amish yourself? Take care, and we’ll discuss the next chapter next week.