Book review: The Amish, by Donald B. Kraybill.

It feels appropriate to review this book right after The Dawn of Everything (TDOE). There are strange contrasts between the cultural views of the two books.

TDOE clearly exaggerated the extent to which European civilization disapproved of freedom and equality, yet Amish culture shows an important kernel of truth behind that exaggeration.

The Amish strongly promote obedience as a virtue. This seems at first glance like the antithesis of the societies which TDOE promotes, with their contempt for most forms of obedience.

Yet Amish are selective enough about their obedience that the practical differences are complicated. Amish pretty consistently reject commands that conflict with religious traditions. Amish parents refuse commands to send their kids to high school. The US military occasionally drafted Amish youth, and got them to show up, but didn't get them to provide any useful support. Some Amish communities disobey commands to put smoke alarms in their homes.

The Amish are pretty obedient to human authorities when those authorities give orders that seem compatible with God's will. But the Amish are serious about treating human threats and rewards as insignificant compared to those of God.

Amish peer pressure to be humble seems much more effective than any modern liberal or progressive proposals at minimizing inequality between living people.

Equality doesn't seem to be an important Amish goal, but their rules leave almost no way to create the inequalities that TDOE or Piketty complain about. Most of the inequality between living Amish seems to be a function of age.

When a husband and wife disagree, the husband's will prevails. But there seems to be strong pressure to resolve all disputes by reaching a consensus rather than by using power. Anyone who frequently used his authority to settle disputes would likely risk being pressured to confess to a sin such as pride.

It is said that we can tell a fair amount about how equal a country or organization is by looking at whether it's depicted mainly by photos (or statues) of its leader, versus photos of many ordinary citizens / team members. The Amish are off the far end of this scale: they have firm rules against displaying or posing for photographs. They also prohibit fancy clothes, jewelry, and pretty much anything that could signal that one person is better than another.

The Amish actively promote inequality in the sense of giving God, the bible, and tradition very strong dominance over individual people. Yet that's done in a way that prevents almost all domination of living humans over other humans (with the main caveat here being that parents dominate their children up through 8th grade a bit more than is the case in many cultures).


The Amish are moderately democratic in the sense that TDOE promotes, i.e. the way that juries are chosen to approximate having average people in charge. Both TDOE and the Amish dislike modern elections - TDOE calls them competitions between elites.

An Amish community chooses a set of candidates for leadership by a process that requires either 2 or 3 members to nominate a candidate. Then a leader is chosen at random from that set (I consider it random; they consider it getting God to choose). Cultural pressure against seeking power apparently ensures that if anyone displayed an actual desire to be a leader, that would disqualify them. Also, leaders have at most as much power as a typical priest would have in a Dunbar-sized village. The Amish have approximately no hierarchy that extends beyond Dunbar-sized groups. This is part of why the most powerful Amish can't do much more than use their powers of persuasion on as many people as can fit in a normal weekly service inside a member's home.

If an Amish leader abuses his power, there's some provision for leaders in neighboring communities to band together top stop the abuser. That serves as a check on accumulation of power, without any one leader or institution gaining more power than the local leader.

What are the most powerful Amish institutions?

The local school seems to be the only Amish institution that has either a building devoted to it or a salaried employee. There's little risk of schools accumulating much power, since a school's only employee is usually a young teacher who treats her job as temporary, to be replaced when she gets married and needs to devote time to raising a family.

TDOE claims that the two features which are needed to create oppressive states are sovereignty and bureaucracy. The Amish are pretty careful to keep bureaucracy to levels that are barely more powerful than what is found in an average forager society. And sovereignty (i.e. monopoly on the use of force) is something that the Amish say belongs to God, not humans.

Sex, Gender, Family

What would the Amish think of the current controversy over trans women in sports? Amish culture is rooted firmly enough in the 17th century that they'll likely insist that gender reflects the role that people serve in reproduction. But that issue wouldn't come up in Amish attitudes toward sports: the Amish have little interest in gender-segregated sports. Amish sports are clearly focused on community-building. It is very antithetical to Amish humility to use sports to determine who has the best genes, or best upbringing, or whatever it is that competitive sports are optimized for doing.

Amish life focuses heavily on marriage and raising children.

Amish culture restrains many of the dreams that modern society promotes of getting really hot sex or a romantic partner who is a perfect match. In return, it offers a good deal more safety: a good chance of an adequate marriage, with little risk of being abandoned by a romantic partner, and little risk of dying alone in a hospital or nursing home.

Where modern city folk often compete with many thousands of people to achieve romantic relationships that last a few years, Amish compete within a roughly Dunbar-sized community, with peer pressure strongly limiting most forms of competition. They compete typically for a couple of years upon reaching adulthood, then stay married for life.

It reminds me of a spectrum of approaches to employment: some workers today try lots of jobs, aiming for a match that they can be passionate about. Whereas the typical worker a century ago aimed for an adequate job at a location near where they grew up, with something resembling a lifetime commitment. A moderate number of people have the aptitude for achieving a career that brings out their passions, but I'm guessing the average worker will end up fairly depressed if they feel a need for such a career.

Strict monogamy ensures that there's close to an even number of people looking for husbands versus wives. That means they mostly avoid the problem of some men being unable to get sex and romance. Over 94% of Amish marry by age 30. That seems higher than comparable estimates of sex and romance for the US.

This seems to be part of a broader pattern of Western culture fostering conditions that create inequality and an epidemic of loneliness, whereas the Amish selectively adopt a few of the benefits of Western culture, while avoiding most of the costs.

Domestic violence seems to be less common in Amish culture - possibly one tenth the level of American culture, although that evidence might be biased by reluctance to report violence. In contrast, Amish have levels of sexual abuse that seem similar to the rest of America.

About the only common use of force is spanking (used strictly as a training tool - they don't condone parents being angry while spanking).

I've been wondering whether Western culture leads to more trauma than is normal. That might happen via more domestic violence than is the case in cultures that create strong communities. Or is might happen via pressure to achieve unnaturally ambitious goals. The evidence from Amish life weakly supports this conjecture.


Amish hostility to insurance leads me to wonder whether early opposition to the existence of an insurance industry was more sensible than I previously realized.

It makes little sense for an Amish family to insure their buildings, given that if their barn burns down, their community will rebuild one in a few days.

The rise of insurance companies might have been a sign that strong communities were decaying. Insurance might accelerate that decay, by making it easier to survive without a community.

Medical insurance is a bit more complicated, but most problems there are due to dysfunctional bureaucracies.


Amish culture rejects rationalism, both in the Less Wrong sense, and in philosophical sense.

But it does so without much that the Amish would consider to be costs.

Amish culture consistently errs in the direction of epistemic humility.

Amish culture promotes the respect for tradition that's described in Henrich's The Secret Of Our Success. It's unlikely that the Amish are deliberately preserving the conditions under which cultural evolution worked as Henrich describes, but it would be hard to do a better job of it.

The Amish reject much of modern science, mostly on the grounds that humans are too fallible to accomplish most of what scientists attempt. Amish communities are capable of accumulating knowledge the old fashioned way.

Amish seem unusually serious about acting in ways that will increase their hope of getting to heaven. Yet they are more reluctant than any religious group I can think of to claim that Amish people will succeed or that non-Amish will fail.

If I started with a strong enough prior that the basics of Christianity were correct, it would seem fairly rational to end up with roughly the beliefs that the Amish have.

Population Growth

The Amish population has been doubling about every 20 years for the past century, due to a persistently high birth rate, and a moderately consistent pattern of retaining members.

This effect is strongest in the more conservative Amish communities, where 6 to 10 children per family is common, and something like 75% of children remain in their communities.

This is in sharp contrast to the declining fertility in most other modern cultures.

I expect Amish population growth will continue as long as there's rural land for sale near existing Amish settlements that are tolerated by the relevant governments.

If population changes were to somehow end up as the most important trend of the next few centuries, then I'd expect the Amish population in North America to stabilize by 2200 due to shortages of rural land. The rest of the North American population would have slightly less fertility than is needed for replacement, but enough Amish would migrate to urban and semi-urban areas to sustain population growth. That growth would be sub-exponential, as Amish in non-rural areas would get assimilated to a low-fertility culture.

I.e. the meek shall inherit the earth?


Without aiming directly for an egalitarian society, the Amish have achieved something closer to that than most of us dream of.

They have sacrificed some freedom to get there. I feel rather confused about that trade-off, because large fractions of it sidestep my usual reasons for wanting more freedom. I'm sure that some people are hurt by that loss of freedom, but it's unclear whether it harms the average person. Note that Amish have substantial freedom from about age 14 until they choose to either leave or become full members of the community.

The book mostly answered my questions about the Amish. I have complaints only about small sections of the book.

My main example: it says we need the Amish, in order to reinforce our commitment to religious freedom. I doubt that the Amish are able to influence that commitment. We're sufficiently isolated from the Amish that it's somewhat unlikely that we'd be affected if we swatted them out of existence, which likely wouldn't be hard to do by accident (Amish culture died out in Europe). Loss of the Amish would be mostly a symptom of something deeper.

The Amish have provided us with potentially valuable evidence about how to live a good life, but most of us will likely do little with that evidence. There are significant costs to becoming Amish. Most of us who have enough ambition and openness to change to consider becoming Amish will dream of something better. Few of us will be more thoughtful about that choice than the Amish are.

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5 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 12:25 PM

Where are the sex abuse rates from? The Amish have many traits (isolation, obedience of children to elders, emphasis on harmony) that increase sexual abuse rates while decreasing reporting. Even if the rate of first offense is unchanged, those traits make abuse much more likely to continue, raising the number of total offenses per person. 

Also, describing Rumspringa as "substantial freedom" seems like an exaggeration, just from the wikipedia page you link to.  Adolescents are punished less harshly for adults for certain transgressions, but still owe obedience to parents and are subject to a lot of community control (if they weren't, what behavior was seen wouldn't be so similar within communities while varying a decent amount between communities. The communities each have their lines, and the teenagers know what they are). 

I think it's entirely possible the Amish are making different trade-offs because they value different things, and are happy with the results of their choices. I'm really intrigued to learn more from them about those trade-offs. But this book seems to be taking their word for how their choices play out (and in particular, taking adult men's word for how they work out for women and children) in ways I don't find very useful. 

The evidence on sexual abuse seems to be entirely anecdotal, and not quantified in any meaningful sense. I included it to avoid implying that the Amish are consistently minimizing crime.

Adolescents during Rumspringa are certainly subject to social pressure, but not obviously more so than in other cultures. They appear to have less parental control than those with tiger moms.

Here's a survey of Amish women that tends to confirm the mostly good outcomes: Health status, health conditions, and health behaviors among Amish women (ungated copy). For children, the high retention rates seem like medium-quality evidence.

I wonder how much their satisfaction depends on the hope of eternity in heaven.

Is that particular study cruxey for you, or just an example? I don't find it convincing, but the reasons why are only important if this is a crux for you.

Examples of the kind data I would find compelling:

  • compare serum cortisol levels between the Amish, various subgroups in the US, and isolated religious groups we're very sure are repressive, like FLDS. 
    • I expect serum cortisol to vary a lot within the US, so it's important to create the right subgroups. It seems entirely plausible being Amish is better than being mainstream poor but worse than being mainstream rich.
    • Among the Amish, I'm curious about the breakdown by gender and being cis+straight vs. not. 
  • compare heart rate variability (generally correlated with high parasympathetic nervous system activity and emotional health) among those same groups
  • I'd love to compare other diseases of stress, but everything I can think of either has too many physical contributors to illness, or detection is too strongly based on self-report. 
  • quantify level of support after an obvious traumatic injury like breaking a leg, and something subtle like back pain. If being Amish is net positive it seems like a lot of the positivity lives in the social support, so how good is it, actually? 
    • I'd like to see this for both median members and the least liked/lowest status.
  • How fast do equivalent injuries heal among Amish vs. mainstream subgroups?
  • conversion rate to Amish or equivalent. 
    • The conversion rate from mainstream to literally Amish is ~0, but that could be almost entirely Amish refusal to allow converts in. I'd use a more expansive definition that included back to the land/giving up tech. I expect the rate of doing that and maintaining is way, way less than the 10-15% Amish departure rate, although it's not a fair comparison because there's nothing one family can do to generate the support level of the Amish.

I don't expect to find strong evidence on this topic anytime soon, so I'm making do with what's available. I think I've been influenced by a fair amount of poorly legible evidence.

Cortisol and HRV data would likely be valuable. I predict that they would show that the average Amish person is mildly less stressed than the average American.

The Amish seem to approve of outsiders converting to be Amish, but they are definitely not making it easy. It's likely somewhat hard to get started, because more tourists want to visit Amish communities than those communities are willing to interact with. You'd need to learn an obscure dialect of German in order to be accepted. Then learn lots of rules about which technologies can be used when. Many people are mildly addicted to something that the Amish prohibit or heavily restrict (television, electricity).

Something like half of new converts eventually drop out. That's important evidence that establishes that Amish communities can't be a lot better than other cultures. But I think it's consistent with Amish culture being slightly better on average.

I'm only making a rather weak claim that Amish communities are a decent place to live. My stronger claim is that, based on what many Americans claim to want, there's something weird about how few give any thought to converting. In particular, I see a discrepancy between how much people say they value equality, versus how much they seek it out.

(Apologies for low-effort response to an interesting article.)