Mrs. Hockman of Tacoma, Washington, is a housewife and free-lance author with a bias toward freedom.
A few years ago at a Foundation for Economic Education seminar, I listened somewhat skeptically to one of Leonard Read’s lectures concerning our present degree of dependency on others for the necessities of life. He stated that should the market suddenly cease to deliver the accustomed goods, he would find it difficult if not impossible to provide even his own food.
Well, I thought smugly, he might have a problem, but surely my husband and I could manage quite nicely. We live in a rural area and, though we were no longer actively raising our own food, we knew how and could do it again if necessary.
But it wasn’t until last spring, spurred by threats of food shortages, the “back to nature” propaganda, and my own blurred memories of tasty home-grown vegetables, that I decided to plant a garden again after a 5-year respite. Now I remember why the respite. Planting is the easy part. The rest is a never-ending battle against weeds and bugs and nature’s capricious weather conditions.
Of course it has its rewards. The food is good — after you have chased every creepy crawly thing from its hiding place by a thorough washing. Finding a 1-inch cut worm reposing among the broccoli on your dinner plate is not among the rewards. It doesn’t matter that he’s been thoroughly washed and scalded and no longer crawling, it still tends to detract from your appetite.
However, the bugs and weeds turned out to be minor irritations. My garden is modest in size, but I did plant it with the idea of preserving for winter. Most things I planned to freeze. But there are some things I prefer to can. I had hunted up all my jars and rings. All I needed was the canning lids.
I was aware of the shortage of lids last summer and so I began watching the shelves in the grocery store from the time I planted the garden. I intended to stock up so I wouldn’t be caught in case another shortage developed. I reasoned, rather logically I thought, that the manufacturers had the whole of the past winter to make lids — certainly the simplest of canning supplies — and soon the shelves would be stocked.
Apparently they spent the whole winter making jars. Cases and cases of jars (complete with lids and rings) appeared in every store. I bought a few, to supplement the jars I already had, and resumed my watch for lids.
As the season wore on I began to grow increasingly frustrated about the whole thing. There were still plenty of jars — but no lids sold separately. I didn’t need jars, I just needed the silly lids. Furthermore, I wasn’t about to buy more jars just to get the lids.
Nobody seemed to know why. Grocers shrugged and backordered. There were rumors of stolen lids and black market operations. If I could have found a black market source I would have patronized it promptly and with no misgivings — or so I thought.
As it turned out, I stayed “legit” — more or less. I managed to get lids at two different grocery stores, but not from the shelves. In both cases I had to ask for them and they were produced from under the check-out stand or from a back room, discreetly pre-wrapped in plain brown bags. Even I didn’t see them until I was “safely” to the car. And in both cases I felt like a smuggler, surreptitiously “getting away” with something. All for the sake of a few dozen tin lids.
The Importance of Trifles
A number of things have “come home” to me as a result of this whole general experience. Leonard Read’s comments on interdependency in the market came ringing in like a homing pigeon.
Generally speaking, canning lids are a trifling commodity in the overall scheme of things. Little tin lids with a thin strip of rubber around the edge. Cost — 53¢ a dozen. Just a trifle. They’ve been around for many years; we’re accustomed to seeing them on the
Why all the fuss ? Because without them the home canner is stymied. The general rule of substitution in a situation of market shortage doesn’t apply. There is no substitute for a new lid with new rubber that will ensure the all-important seal. And the fact is that I can’t make a canning lid. Hello there, Leonard Read — it took her a while but I think “she’s got it.”
Self-sufficiency, without some dependence on the general market, is a myth. Even those out there homesteading and doing everything, including grinding their own wheat, must rely on the market — unless they are working with handmade tools and use no machinery, need no parts, tools, fuel, and the like.
It is the “trifles” we tend to take for granted. My simplistic notion of self-sufficiency as being able to grow and preserve my own food was totally unrealistic. The first thing I did, before planting, was to go out and buy seed. My garden was dependent before the fact on the expertise of those who produce good, reliable seed.
I learned something about human nature too — my own. I was prepared, on principle, to pay more if necessary through a shady or “illegal” dealer in order to get what I needed rather than be coerced by the “legitimate” market into buying something I didn’t need. This was a conclusion based only partly on reasoned analysis, for it also involved a basic reaction to being thwarted in meeting my purpose through customary channels. Yet, when I was able to purchase them in the open market but in an under-the-counter manner, I felt sneaky and vaguely dishonest.
This was a new experience for me and a disturbing one. Not the black market, but certainly gray around the edges.
And so I am obliged to revise my previously held notion that the black market is essentially the “free market.” It may operate more freely according to supply and demand, but the element of risk and subversion is added to the cost — both in terms of dollars and self-respect.
The free market is the open market — open to competition in both buying and selling. I don’t know what’s behind the canning lid shortage, or whether it is contrived or real. Since the truth seems to head the list of scarce commodities these days, we may never know the specifics.
What we do know is that political manipulation is the root cause of our prolonged economic difficulties. And what we should know is that political manipulation is the practice of manipulating people. The more devious and underhanded the political maneuvers become, the more devious and underhanded must we, as individuals, become in order to live “within the system.”
Obviously the only truly self-sufficient individual is the hermit who takes to the hills and lives his primitive existence completely out of touch with society.
As for the rest of us, we are not only dependent upon the market, we have a very real stake in it. Let those who wish to go “back to nature” go. But let’s think twice before we let them drag us along to the “simple” life they envision.
Getting back to nature for a few days on a camping trip can be most rewarding and relaxing. But getting back to indoor plumbing, the automatic washer and central heating is the real reward.
Having survived a three-day power outage in the wake of a snowstorm last winter, I can testify to the unpleasant rigors of living without the “luxuries of affluence” of which it has been said we are “overburdened.” Nonsense.
Overburdened is hauling wood from dawn to dark for a hungry fireplace which throws warmth a whole three feet into the living room, leaving the rest of the house — most notably the bathroom — at a temperature slightly above the snowy outdoor level.
Could Do It — But Why?
Now I’ve reasoned, as have others, that it’s not impossible to generate one’s own power system through windmills and the like. But I still can’t make a simple canning lid. That one little item brought the whole picture into focus. We could no doubt resort to other methods of preserving food. But that’s not the point.
The point is: Why should we? Why give up the benefits of centuries of human knowledge? Why wish for or search for alternate methods of primitive survival? It doesn’t make sense.
Does my husband want to spend his life chopping and hauling wood? Do I want to wash clothes in a stream on a rock? And what clothes? Where will they come from? Animal skins and hides, maybe. Or perhaps I should learn to spin and weave.
Needless to say, I’ve taken the “cure” insofar as my visions of self-sufficiency are concerned. And in the process, I’ve learned what should have known all along.
We always have choices in life. The question of whether capitalism will survive or not is still up in the air. Many of us who recognize the problem are torn between the very sensible inclination to “save” ourselves, and the knowledge that only those who do recognize the problem can offer any real help in solving it. I’ve discovered that for me it’s not an either/or proposition. The one is dependent upon the other, and with that my choice is clear.
I have no desire to live a life of primitive subsistence, so why should I expend my energies in that direction? The things I appreciate and enjoy, and the comforts I have always taken for granted, are to be found in civilization, within society, within the sophisticated trade system so highly developed in America. With this realization, I accept the fact that one can be independent and still be dependent upon others, that self-responsibility does not imply total self-sufficiency.
Whereas we can readily grasp the fact that capitalism offers us independence and freedom of choice, the fact that it also creates greater and greater dependency upon the skills and products of others is not so easily acknowledged. We tend to take it for granted, which is not the same thing as knowing which side your bread is buttered on.
As though to drive the message all the way home, I got yet another lesson midway through the writing of this. At the point where I mention the rule of substitution in the market, my typewriter suddenly stopped short with a dreadful clanking sound from somewhere inside. Investigation revealed that it was beyond my ability to repair. In that one instant it became utterly useless to me.
What does a resourceful individual do when deprived of a needed commodity? One substitutes. I proceeded in longhand — ever mindful, I would add, of the manufacturer of both ball-point pens and the needed paper.
The typewriter went to the repairman, naturally — upon whose expertise I am dependent.