the dollar vigilante blog

Walden South

[Editor’s Note: The following post is by TDV contributor, Wendy McElroy]

“Simplify, simplify.” — Henry David Thoreau

“Simplify.” — me

It occurred to me over the kitchen table last night, after a dinner of fried chicken.

A good friend has come a long distance to assist us in constructing a patio to increase the value of our farmhouse when we sell and move to Chile. A veteran house builder, he drew up the rough plans for our ultimate new dwelling. For the second time in my life, I fell in love at first sight.

But what occurred to me is that my husband and I are trading a far more extensive piece of land and a larger house for more modest properties. By the North American standard of 'more is better' and 'always climb the ladder upward', many will view our choice as a retreat or a failure. Some of those people will be family. They will be wrong.

One by one or in families, people are staking their claim and committing their futures to Galt's Gulch Chile. They have different reasons. Our reason is to trade 'things' to buy freedom. My husband and I long to live as simply and honestly as we know how.

Voluntary simplicity (sometimes mislabeled as frugality) is spreading as a new 'ethos' throughout the Western world. It is a natural reaction to the politically-created economic disaster that has gutted the stability of so many individuals and families. Given the circumstances, it is easy to view voluntary simplicity as a bitter pill that you are forced to swallow, which you would much rather spit out. I believe the contrary is true. Voluntary simplicity is a strategy that has freed and enriched my life. It has no connection to 'doing without' or depriving myself of any 'thing' I value enough to trade my time to acquire. It means that I purchase something only what I value it more than the time and other expense required to do so. 

Several years ago, my lifestyle changed dramatically because of a realization that should have been obvious to me all along. Things cost money; money is time; time is -- in the most literal sense -- life. I had never looked at my possessions as hours or days of time taken from my life. If X cost $100 and I made $100-an-hour, then X cost me an irreplaceable one hour of life. Or, rather, it cost an hour plus whatever time was consumed by the transaction costs of making money, such as commuting. It cost an hour plus any intangible involved, such as the possible loss of self-esteem due to unethical or soul-numbing methods of making the money. The true cost of my possessions was the amount of my life and myself it took to earn them.

I started wandering the house, looking at possessions. Fully half of them were 'things' I did not use and I would never miss. And, yet, I had traded a substantial chunk of my life to acquire them. Without a hint of morbidity, I wondered: When I confront death, how much would I give to gain back the time I squandered on these extraneous possessions? I applied marginal utility to the time allotted to my life. Right now, the hours I have seem boundless, and it is tempting to value each unit as though it was part of an infinite supply. But  I only have X number of hours to live and no time to squander any of them. 

I want the hours of my life to be filled with the touch of my husband, talks with friends, reading and writing, playing with my treat-sneaking dog, and working in a garden. I love to cook. I want to see the expression on my husband's face when he bites into the meal that has been seasoned and simmered to perfection. I want to use my life and all that is in it. Which means I should not live on a farm so big that there are acres I've not walked in ten years or in a house where rooms are used to store boxes I haven't opened in as long.

Voluntary simplicity doesn't mean depriving yourself of pleasure. Quite the opposite. I long to travel the world and to feel the places that made my mind tingle as a child. Some day I will know what the stars look like in the night sky of Africa and how a jungle smells. I never regret my books or DVDs, the live theatre that gives me a jolt of pleasure each time the curtain rises, our dog, my sporty car that makes me feel 18-years-old, drive-in movies, the expensive ingredients for a superb meal. I don't regret retirement savings or emergency funds. But I will never again buy clothing I do not wear or order an expensive meal that I could cook better. These useless or disappointing things are not purchased with money; they are purchased with my life.

And, for those who use politics as a touchstone, there is a strong political component to voluntary simplicity. I am physically sick of feeding money to the state. I am tired to my bones of contributing to wars, entitlements, public servants, crony capitalists, and social programs like public schools. I am being forced to contribute to the destruction of everything I value. Simplicity has become a competitive sport with me on one side and the government with its running-dog corporations on the other. I intend to win and I intend to have fun doing so. After all, simplicity is something I do so well. The less I need to live superbly, the less they have to take away. The more I am self-sufficient and barter, the more enrich myself and neighbors, not the state.

From the first construction of the first wall of our home in Chile, we will build into it the simplest lifestyle that is consistent with a rich, full future. The house will have ethernet and a system of rain harvesting. We will have fiber optics and a year-round vegetable garden. There will be long nights of walking on the plateau and gazing at the glittering crystal of stars in a jet black sky. My husband and I will claim every inch of our land, every moment of our lives. Voluntary simplicity will be a lifestyle instead of a philosophical approach.

We are going to Galt's Gulch Chile for the same reason Henry David Thoreau went to Walden. In the section of the book entitled “Where I Lived, & What I Lived For,” Thoreau wrote:

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

If Thoreau had moved to Galt's Gulch Chile, he would have built on the most modest and remote stretch of land available. I would have been a neighbor on the second most modest and a somewhat remote lot. Because that's where deliberate life can happen. As it is, I'll content myself with building the sketch that now lies on my kitchen table and with naming my house “Walden South.”


Wendy McElroy is a regular contributor to the Dollar Vigilante, and a renowned individualist anarchist and individualist feminist. She was a co-founder along with Carl Watner and George H. Smith of The Voluntaryist in 1982, and is the author/editor of twelve books, the latest of which is "The Art of Being Free". Follow her work at

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