All Commentary
Tuesday, December 1, 1981

The Myth of Self-Reliance

I received a most appealing magazine in the mail the other day, a publication full of pictures of a good life that could be mine if only I would try to be more self-reliant. There were attractive log cabins with rustic, spacious interiors, lush greenhouses that produce fresh vegeta bles in the dead of winter, solar panels that will heat my home at a much lower cost than our local utility, and tips on living better with less dependency on automobiles and other such evils of modern technology.

The message was clear: by being dependent on the labor and productivity of others, we have lost our sources of independence; we are not truly free and, indeed, have enslaved ourselves in a technological society that can only demand more, more, more. There was even an editorial to that effect:

“Before 1776 we were less than free as a country, but Americans were independent in a personal sense. Most people then built their own homes, grew their own food, made their furniture and clothes, and even bred their own horses for transportation. True, life was much harder than now. But the support systems were within reach of almost everyone, and were subject to individual control. People ‘paid’ for much of what they used with their own effort. Almost all the raw materials were renewable. Our material culture was sustainable, and America could be cut off from the rest of the world without the creation of much suffering or hardship . . . What can be done about our growing dependence in these modern times?”

In one sense, that writer is correct. After all, it is to our advantage to be competent in many areas. It makes better sense for me to change a fuse than to pay an electrician $16 to do the same thing; it might be wise for me to know how to operate a fire extinguisher so should a fire ever break out in my house, I can quickly put it out rather than wait 15 minutes until the fire department arrives to salvage what is left of the structure.

This fall I am riding my bicycle to work on occasions both to save gasoline (but not time) and to get exercise that has been sorely lacking in the last year. Last summer I worked hard to nurture a very productive garden and at the present time I am constructing a small solar panel with aluminum cans and scrap materials. In fact, a visitor in our home might well assume, after observing my wife and me at work, that we do subscribe at least in part to a self-sufficient lifestyle. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Myth of Self-Sufficiency

The self-sufficient lifestyle is a myth, and even if it were possible in this age, or was possible at any time in history, it is socially undesirable. The self-sufficient lifestyle is impossible to live because all of us are dependent upon the productivity of others and those who might choose to live entirely by their own hand do so at the high cost of poverty and misery to themselves.

There was a time in history when communities were, on the whole, relatively self-sufficient. The farmers grew all the community’s food near the towns, blacksmiths forged tools and weapons in their grimy shops, the townspeople’s clothing was made from wool and flax produced locally, and the community’s safety was in the hands of the local nobleman. In case the readers have not figured out the time period, it was the Dark Ages when the world’s most developed people, the Europeans, lived in squalor, semi-starvation and under constant threat of attack by the armies of rival noblemen—poverty and misery.

Most persons advocating the self-sufficient lifestyle will quickly reject any accusation that says they are advocating a form of feudalism. After all, most of them are self-proclaimed pacifists (no warring on neighboring villages permitted) who claim they simply wish to live in peace and live their lives without interference from hostile outside forces. But we still have not answered the basic question: Is the self-sufficient lifestyle possible and, if so, is it desirable?

Even in the tightly-knit feudal communities there was a need for cooperation rather than self-sufficiency. The nobleman was dependent upon the productivity of the serf for his food; the serf was dependent upon the blacksmith for the tools (capital) that would enable him to grow enough food to keep the persons in the community alive for another year; and all were dependent upon the intelligence and leadership of the nobleman who had to keep rival armies from sacking the towns and destroying the crops. In this sense, individuals were not self-sufficient, but the combination of their productivity enabled most members of the community to eke out a marginal existence.

In reference to the aforementioned editorial, it might be good to compare the lifestyle of the American pioneers to that of the Europeans of feudal communities, and also to see just how desirable the pioneering life was in contrast to our present existence in this country. First, the pioneers had the advantage of firearms (made by other craftsmen) which were more effective in protecting their homes and settlement villages than the arrows and lances of the Middle Ages, and also provided an effective tool for hunting. But, like that of their ancestors of Medieval Europe, their life was a harsh one. “Most of them traveled on foot, their possessions on their backs, in wheelbarrows, or saddled to a few scrawny cows that had been transformed into beasts of burden. Travelers from abroad noted the characteristic bluish complexion of these settlers, many of whom suffered from forest fever, milk sickness, and especially the swamp-bred ague (malaria).”[2]

Improved Standards of Living Through Specialization and Trade

It is true that many pioneers directly produced their items of necessities, but their lives also reflected the harshness of that kind of lifestyle. Their children did not attend school, but instead worked in the fields alongside their parents. Death by disease was high and infant mortality common. Alone in the woods, they were often easy prey for warring bands of Indians and out laws. However, as more and more people pushed west, the pioneers became less isolated, banded together in villages, became more dependent upon each other for their goods and, as a result, improved their standard of living.

But, as the editorial writer might argue, at least the early pioneers were self-sufficient and had more control over their own destiny. To say that, however, one must assume that vulnerability to hostile raiders, the ever-present reality of mortal diseases, and the back-breaking labor needed to survive the wilds is somehow more desirable than our present status, dependent as we maybe on the productive efforts of others.

As for the self-sufficiency of America as a whole, one must look at the results of the Embargo Act of 1807 to see just how well the people of this nation lived when deprived of foreign goods.

“The Embargo Act meant ruin, not to Britain and Europe (the intended targets of President Thomas Jefferson), but to American commerce and American ports. In spite of the losses caused by the European wars, between 1803 and 1807 American exports had grown from $55 million to $108 million. By 1808, they had dwindled to the little that could be smuggled out of the country. In New York, as one traveler reported, ‘the grass had begun to grow upon the wharves.’ Industries associated with commerce, such as shipbuilding and sailmaking, were also at a standstill, their artisans unemployed.”[3]

Progress Regained After Repeal of the Embargo Act

It took little more than a year before America’s experiment in consuming only what was produced within its own borders was junked for the more preferable “growing dependence” on producers of other nations. It was as though the American political leadership had finally regained its sanity and once again took heed to what Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations had told them 32 years earlier:

“It is the maxim of every prudent master of a family, never to attempt to make at home what it will cost him more to make than buy. The tailor does not attempt to make his own shoes, but buys them of the shoemaker. The shoemaker does not attempt to make his own clothes, but employs a tailor . . . . What is prudence in the conduct of every private family can scarce be folly in that of a great kingdom.”

This passage is used mainly in defense of free trade between nations, but it is also vital for the individual as well. For example, my car needs major repairs before winter. Now, I can either attempt to repair it myself or take it to a mechanic. If I try to fix it myself, I must first buy some specialty tools in addition to the tools I already own. I must then purchase all the new parts, then put my talent and experience together into one less-than-magnificent effort as I try to do something I have never done before. Of course, I know enough about my car to be able to complete the job without being forced to have it towed to the junkheap, but the total cost of my effort, tools plus parts plus time plus high blood pressure, would be far greater than the expense I would incur by simply taking it to a mechanic I trust and leaving it with him for a couple days. In this case, my attempts at self-sufficiency would be far more costly than dependency upon a knowledgeable mechanic.

But even if I could repair my car at a lower cost than I would pay for a repairman, in reality I still would not be self-sufficient. After all, I would be dependent upon the auto-makers for the spare parts, toolmakers for my tools, and writers and publishers for the repair manual. In other words, I would be dependent upon the voluntary cooperation of the thousands of persons who had a hand in making all those products in the same way the rugged, independent backwoodsmen were dependent upon the skilled craftsmen who made their accurate rifles.

For Survival and Comfort

The truth is, no matter how much anyone talks about self-reliance, interdependence is still necessary for, first, our survival, and second, any comforts we collect. We are told that if we ride bicycles, then we won’t be dependent on either the automakers or the Arabs who provide us with much of our oil. That may be true in one sense, but that view is extremely short-sighted. My 10- speed bike was made in Italy, which means that if I am to be personally independent of the automobile and its producers, I must now be dependent upon the competence of an Italian bikemaker. I am also dependent upon the skill of the ship captain who brings that bike across the ocean (on a vessel powered by Arab oil) and upon the good driving habits of the trucker who brings the product to the retail shop (on a truck powered by high-priced diesel fuel).

If my solar heating, panel succeeds in lowering my utility bill, I will still have to depend upon the Tennessee Valley Authority to provide me with at least some of my electricity, but I will then be dependent upon the aluminum cans produced by the nearby Alcoa plant—which draws its electricity from the same source as I do. Neither does my productive garden make me a self-reliant person. True, I may not spend as much money at the grocery store as I once did, but my dependency is now shifted to the makers of rototillers and garden tools and fertilizer.

I am dependent upon the oak and maple trees in my yard to provide me with the leaves needed for a good garden mulch. I am also dependent upon the oil companies for the gasoline to power my tiller and my utility to provide electricity to run the deep freezer in which I store most of our produce. If I attach a windmill to my shed that will produce my electricity in windy weather, I am then dependent upon the skill of the maker of that windmill, along with being reliant upon the changes in the atmosphere that will produce the needed wind.

I can take another course of action. I can unhook my electric, water and telephone lines, put my car and truck in mothballs, use pointed sticks as garden tools, wear oak leaves and animal skins, and go hungry six months of the year. At that point, I might be reasonably self-reliant upon my primitive wits, but I can’t say much for my cave-man quality of life, nor would my neighbors give much support for my noble experiment.

Hidden Costs

What is ironic about this situation is that to live a reasonably self-reliant life, one must work much harder and do with much less than one who allows himself to be dependent upon the efforts and capital of others. If I ride a bike to work, I must also pay part of my cost in time and convenience. When I work in the garden, I am unable to spend as much time pursuing other productive ends. Of course, riding a bike or working eight hours under a broiling sun in my garden is a persona] choice I make freely, but I make those choices without being under the illusion that somehow I am paying less for them.

Besides helping provide a better life for all, interdependence has another saving feature: it promotes cooperation between people, even people who might hate one another. For example, relations between the United States and Libya are presently near the boiling point, but even while the heads of state of the two governments are trading charges and countercharges, U.S. oil tankers line up in the Tripoli harbor each day to draw Libyan oil. The oil helps run the productive U.S. economy, while money paid for the crude enables Libyans to buy foreign goods that previously have not been available to them.

Seeds of War

It is noteworthy that people who urge national self-sufficiency do so because they fear what might happen to the lines of trade if a war breaks out. Yet, one of the reasons a nation will risk war is that it believes it can do so without chancing a collapse of its economic structures. Before Hitler’s Panzer divisions invaded Poland and later France, the German dictator made reasonably sure by his earlier “nonviolent” conquests of the Rhineland, Austria and Czechoslovakia that his nation was self-sufficient in production of food and war goods. In the same way, Mao Tse-tung tried to insure China’s self-sufficiency (at horrendous cost to the Chinese) not so much for national pride as for making sure China could withstand attack by the Soviet Union.

In both cases, the economic self-reliance of these nations was achieved not through freedom but rather through coercion that required a choice between complete obedience or death. One nation eventually helped plunge an entire world into a destructive war, while another seeks to reverse the damages inflicted upon it by more than 30 years of a communist system. The end results in both cases have been far different than were planned by the political leaders, and are certainly not the results that most people would desire if left to their own free choice.

And if interdependency builds cooperation between nations, it obviously does the same for individuals. Two workers on the assembly line at our local stove plant may not like each other, but both will cooperate in the building of a new stove, since both will benefit in the form of wages, while consumers benefit as well, since they can acquire new wealth in the form of stoves. Contrary to the preachings of the “small is beautiful,” “self-reliant” set, interdependency and a complex division of labor will promote freedom, cooperation, and a better, safer life for all. Those who attempt to circumvent this interlocking web will do so at the cost of freedom, and at the same time will promote conflict rather than peace.

1.   Robert Rodale, “What’s In A Name?” Rodale’s New Shelter, July/August, 1981, p. 6.

2.   Richard Hofstadter, The United States (New York, 1966), p. 246.

3.   Hofstadter, p. 209.

  • Dr. William Anderson is Professor of Economics at Frostburg State University. He holds a Ph.D in Economics from Auburn University. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.