What does Thoreau mean by his comment, "It makes but little difference whether you are committed to a farm or the county jail"?
This quote is found in paragraph 5 of the “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” chapter in Walden. It follows Thoreau’s recounting of a time when he considered buying a farm. He did not purchase the property. He ends the story with a vow of advice to himself and perhaps to his readers as well: “As long as possible live free and uncommitted. It makes but little difference whether you are committed to a farm or the county jail.”
Thoreau liked to use wordplay and literary devices in his writing. Here he uses two different meanings of the word “committed” to add a twist to his conclusion. To be committed to a farm is to be bound to it by ownership and dedication. To be committed to the county jail is to be put into official custody of law enforcement authorities. The first one is by choice, the second one is by force. In the first one, the person is in charge of everything. In the second one, other people are in charge. But Thoreau sees these ties as being similar. Owning a property is a full-time responsibility that he equates with doing time in prison. You are chained to the place, one way or another.
Other than the house he built and lived in at Walden Pond—and only that building itself, not the land that it sat on (which belonged to Ralph Waldo Emerson)—Henry Thoreau never owned real estate. He lived with his parents or with the Emerson family. He discovered that he could enjoy his lifestyle more by being free of this responsibility. Besides, he did a lot of work as a property surveyor. In this job, he could scrutinize every inch of a property temporarily, and not be tied to it forever.