Opinion and Economic Analysis

HICKS: Town squares reflect forefathers' optimism

July 3, 2010

In my line of work, I travel to many small towns. One eccentricity I indulge in on these trips is to drive around town squares. I especially like old town halls. For many, the old square might go unnoticed. But I think the buildings say a lot about the people who had them built and maybe something about us.

Most of these town halls and courthouses in Indiana were built a decade or two after the end of the Civil War. In places like Madison, Rockville and New Castle, grand buildings of Indiana limestone, adorned with copper domes, replaced the earliest signs of Hoosier government, a small clapboard courthouse or log building—some of which still remain.

These edifices were built during difficult but heady times. The people were still pioneers. A man in his 70s—old by the standards of the day—could have remembered walking to Indiana from Virginia, the Carolinas or Tennessee. 

He would have come with his father, a recipient of 40 acres and a mule for his Revolutionary War service. In 1875, virtually every Hoosier household still felt the effects of the Civil War. About half of all households had sent a man to war, and Indiana’s casualties were twice those we suffered in World War II. The economy fared poorly after the war, not surprising given the loss of manpower and productive capital wrought by four years of conflict. Yet somehow, amid recent prairies and woodlands, communities all over Indiana and the Midwest said in a collective voice: Here, we build our future. 

More than anything, these town halls and courthouses are witness to the optimism of those generations. To some, this may seem far removed, but these were our grandparents’ grandparents. They looked deeply and with confidence to the future. That’s why I pause to stop and reflect upon these places. In successive generations, Hoosiers built monuments to the difficult times that came—wars primarily. These are the sacred places of deeply useful Midwestern values of civic life, civic virtue and optimism. That’s one reason I like to visit them. The other is that the best pie in town is usually available nearby.

Now, to tell the truth, all this stuff about town spirit and resolve isn’t strictly economics. But the more time I spend reading and studying the economy, the more I am convinced that in truly free societies, it is the dogged optimism of small-scale economic actors that propels growth. I say this because in societies that aren’t free, what Adam Smith called the “propensity to truck, barter and exchange” is stunted.

As we emerge from this recession, burdened by debt and real uncertainty, the decisions we make in our households matter a great deal. I am convinced that simple and wise choices—like further investment in schooling, starting a business, or moving for that dream job—will change many lives for the better. That’s not to say the road won’t be rocky. But that’s what July 4 is all about.•

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Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.

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