Kevin Williamson‘s latest column for National Review Online critiques Paul Theroux’s “extraordinarily stupid and dishonest account of economic life in the American South.”

There is no reactionary like the anti-trade reactionary, and Theroux and his ilk make the original Luddites look like Steve Jobs by comparison. He gives us Hollandale, Miss., where the 3,500 residents constitute a tax base of less than $300,000. (I do not think that Theroux knows what a “tax base” is, unless the assets of the people of Hollandale total $85.71 each; given that the Hollandale school district manages to spend nearly $9 million a year on 669 students, this seems to me unlikely.) But, yes, woe unto Hollandale:

When Hollandale’s citizens lost their jobs in the cotton fields to mechanization they found work nearby, in Greenville and elsewhere, in factories that made clothes, bikes, tools and much else — for big brands like Fruit of the Loom and Schwinn.

Theroux may not have picked this up this tidbit while growing up on the mean suburban streets of Medford, Mass., but the fact is that given a choice between a) picking cotton and b) almost anything else, the vast majority of people choose b. (Or at least they used to; picking cotton is a pretty good job now.) They didn’t lose their jobs to mechanization — they were liberated from them by new economic development.

It is emphatically not the case that the South, or the United States in general, engages in less manufacturing today than it did in the so-called golden age of the postwar era (during which years a lot of poor people in the South, members of my family included, supplemented the wages they were earning during the manufacturing boom by . . . picking cotton, by hand, and being paid by the pound). We manufacture much more today than we did in the 1950s, and we grow a lot more cotton, too — and both enterprises require fewer workers today than they did back then. When one worker can produce what ten workers used to produce, or a hundred, wages go up, which is why you can make $100,000 a year harvesting cotton today, massive capital investments and innovation having turned what was once the work of slaves into a fairly lucrative skilled occupation.