Self-sufficiency and economic freedom
This article is part of my posts on the economic system of distributism. This is from practicaldistributism.blogspot.com which you can find here:
Hilaire Belloc’s Essay on the Restoration of Property is a remarkably well-written book. Put aside the question of whether Belloc is right or wrong about any of his contentions: the book is thoroughly lucid. It’s also organic—you really can’t dip into it at random, you need to get ahold of the ideas as a whole. This feature of the book, I think, leads to confusion among critics. Well, there’s also the fact that despite its lucidity, the book covers far more territory than it could exhaustively treat, so there are some ideas that aren’t fully fleshed out. One of those ideas, at least in my experience, is economic freedom. It’s one of the central notions of the book, and one of the most fundamental principles upon which Distributism stands, and I’ve had a difficult time coming to grips with it.
It seems to me others have, too, including some prominent opponents of Distributism. In particular, there seems to be a tendency to conflate economic freedom and self-sufficience. This has serious consequences.
As I say, the book is an organic whole, so I can’t just pick up ‘economic freedom’ on its own. I need to back up a little. Belloc begins with the Production of Wealth. This is, as he puts it, the transformation of man’s environment from a state that is less useful to a state that is more useful. ‘Wealth,’ here, doesn’t mean large sacks of cash (at least, not generally). It means all the things we need to have in order to live conformably to our nature: things like food and drink and clothes and shelter.
The transformation of our environment—the Production of Wealth—occurs only through the use of the Means of Production:
The wealth can only come into existence through the manipulating of natural forces by certain instruments; and there must also be an existing store of food and clothing and housing and the rest of it [e.g. clothing and fuel: or, in other words, wealth] so that human beings may carry on during the process of production. These stores of wealth, these instruments and these natural forces are the Means of Production.
Note that last sentence carefully. The means of production include such things as food and clothing, tools (“certain instruments”), and the natural forces with which we work. It follows immediately that “whoever controls the means of production controls the supply of wealth.” It also follows immediately that if the family does not control the means of production, then it will not be economically free. That is: economic freedom requires control over the means of production. Without control over the means of production, you are economically dependent upon others. If you are economically free, you are not economically dependent upon others. But of course this all comes in degrees. To attain ideal economic freedom, one must attain full control over all the means of production required for the production of the sorts of wealth called for by one’s life.
Now, a quick review of that last paragraph brings to light why it’s so easy to confuse economic freedom with self-sufficiency. But hold on to that for a minute. First, we need to get clear on this notion of ideal economic freedom. It’s not what you think.
The ideal, Belloc says, is inhuman. In other words, do not read Belloc’s use of the term ‘ideal’ as meaning “a goal to be strived for even though we are sure to fall short,” or as “that which would be most appropriate for us, should we, per impossibile, attain it.” That is definitely not the way to take it. He uses the term in the sense of being an idealization, which is to say, a falsification. Man is a social animal. He is not made for the kind of isolation implied in such an ideal. Again—and this can’t be stressed enough—ideal economic freedom is not a desideratum. It must come with limitations.
So Belloc posits two restraints upon economic freedom. First, there is the Difference of Occupation: some will mainly raise grain, some will mainly mill grain, some will mainly make millstones, some will mainly fix grain planting equipment, etc. Second, there is the Principle of Unity, namely, the State, which helps maintain justice and order internally, and helps arrange for defense against aggression from without. The resulting dually-limited economic freedom “satisfies the nature of man.” So these limitations are not unfortunate constraints that bar our way to Utopia. There is no Utopia—the “ideal” is eschewed from the outset as not proper to our nature.
What is to be pursued is not an inhuman ideal, but rather the wide distribution of control over the means of production, which is to say, private property. And the family must control the means of production, or else it will not be economically free. One can, of course, reject economic freedom as a goal (and Belloc deals with some arguments intended to do that). But if one accepts economic freedom as a goal, then it is hard to see how Belloc’s conclusions to this point can be gainsaid.
At any rate, my task for today is not to argue in defense of economic freedom. It is, rather, to clarify the relation between economic freedom and self-sufficiency. I’ll take an old article from Thomas Woods as an example of the confusion of those two notions, and of its consequences for understanding Distributism. But let’s start with the distinction.
I doubt there’s an authoritative account of exactly what self-sufficiency is, so let’s just make it easy on ourselves and go straight to Wikipedia.
Self-sufficiency (also called self-containment) is the state of not requiring any aid, support, or interaction for survival; it is a type of personal or collective autonomy… Self-sufficiency is a type of sustainable living in which nothing is consumed other than what is produced by the self-sufficient individuals.
Obviously there’s an ideal form of self-sufficiency, just as there’s an ideal form of economic freedom, and I suspect that the ideal of self-sufficiency is equally unattainable and undesirable. So self-sufficiency comes in degrees like economic freedom. But are they the same thing?
If so, then any increase in the one is an increase in the other, and the having of a large amount of the one entails the having a large amount of the other (and vice versa). But that’s not how the relationship between the two really works.
Imagine a person who buys a small farm on the outskirts of a major city. The value of the property is, say, one million dollars. The farmer desires to be self-sufficient. He wants to raise all of his food and fiber and fuel. So he manages, over the course of some years, to grow large amounts of cotton and wool (and, correspondingly, mutton and lamb and even some sheep’s milk), along with maintaining a wood lot for firewood and a large garden, together with a laying flock and fruit trees and brambles and so forth. The farm allows the farmer to become remarkably self-sufficient.
Does that mean the farmer is remarkably economically free? Well, no, not necessarily. Suppose the farmer, in addition to his farm work, holds a fulltime job as a high school science teacher. His extreme degree of self-sufficiency is a pretty good thing, because the mortgage payment on the farm eats up virtually his whole income. If he should lose his job, he would within a very short time lose his farm. The truth is that he does not own the means of production, and hence he is not economically free. (Objection: he’s not really self-sufficient, because his farm depends upon inputs from outside the system: namely, money. Reply: first, even if it were granted that he’s not perfectly self-sufficient, nevertheless, if the term ‘self-sufficient’ has any meaning at all, it can be applied to this person. For comparison, just think of the high school science teacher who produces none of his own food, fuel, fiber, etc. That person is not at all self-sufficient, but the farmer teacher is far more self-sufficient. But second, the objection equivocates on self-sufficiency, essentially by conflating self-sufficiency with economic freedom, or in other words it begs the question here. That it doesn’t justifiably do so can be shown by considering the distinction between economic freedom and self-sufficiency from the opposite direction…a task to which I now turn.)
Looking at the question from the opposite direction, we can easily imagine someone who has inherited a large plumbing firm, and is able to live on the income from that firm, but who does exactly zero productive labor. Economically free, but not at all self-sufficient.
In short, self-sufficiency and economic freedom are quite distinct. That’s not to say they’re wholly disconnected. Other things equal, the more self-sufficient you are, the more economically free you are. (I do not think the entailment runs in the other direction, as the latter example above shows.) But the point is that if you don’t carefully distinguish between the two concepts, you’ll start making mistakes about them. Now I turn, as promised, to Woods. Forgive the long quotation: I need it all here so you can see what I mean about making mistakes. Note the way that economic freedom and self-sufficiency—together with in/dependence and security (I’ll put the terms in bold in order to obnoxiously belabor the point)—get mixed together in what follows:
For Belloc, then, the great advantage of distributism is that it gives the household a significant measure of independence. A new introduction to his Essay on the Restoration of Property describes his view of “economic freedom” as something that “comes from the possession of sufficient productive property, such that a man need not depend upon his employer for a wage, but has rather to depend upon himself and his land, craft, tools, and trade for his sustenance.” Belloc acknowledges in passing that of course anyone selling to others is in some way dependenton those others, thereby conceding that risk and uncertainty are unavoidable aspects of life rather than unique to a system of economic freedom. If the price and quality of his goods do not remain sufficiently competitive, he is surely bound to lose business. However, Belloc points out, the family can nevertheless live on its own, even if buyers refuse to purchase its surplus goods. They can live on what they themselves produce. At heart, then, Belloc’s promise of security amounts to the distributist family’s ability in the last resort to retreat altogether from the division of labor and live in a condition of self-sufficiency.
I take it I don’t need to spend too much time pointing out that Woods is attributing to Belloc the ideal version of economic freedom, rather than the desirable or real one that Belloc actually defends. If Belloc’s “promise of security” comes down to saying, hey, at least you can live altogether in isolation—which is to say, in an undesirable and unnatural state—then it’s not much of a promise.
I would have thought the point was obvious enough: if I’m entirely dependent on my employer for all my wealth, then I am not economically free. At any moment, my employer could elect to end my employment. If, on the other hand, I own the means of production (not simply a farm, but a plumbing business or a bakery or a law office) then while of course I am “dependent” on my customers or clients (just exactly as my employer is dependent upon his customers or clients—there’s no difference there), I am not alsodependent on my employer. A whole layer of dependence has been removed. In no case am I wholly secure in this world: just for one example, a terrible economic crash can hurt an independent plumber just as badly as it can hurt an employee of a large plumbing firm. (Although I suspect that even here there is nuance. An employee of a suffering plumbing firm may simply be let go, and wind up with no income at all. [Leaving aside unemployment benefits or what have you, which of course Belloc is strongly opposed to.] But an independent plumber, while his business may be seriously cut back, will likely retain some income, through doing a few jobs here and there. Leave this aside.) Notice that economic freedom as such has absolutely nothing to do with retreating to the hills and becoming wholly self-sufficient. It has to do with owning the means of production! Now to see how this confusion continues to undermine Woods’s attempts to deal with Belloc, let me continue the long quotation:
Yet the advantages of the division of labor are so clear that relatively few people have found Belloc’s proposal attractive enough to have actually attempted to adopt it. Practically anyone in the United States today who possesses the requisite knowledge and modest capital can acquire farmland and chase after the kind of self-sufficiency Belloc advocated. Producing their own necessities and in possession of the means of production, so to speak, such a family would be utterly independent of employers or anyone else. They would probably also enjoy a standard of living so depressed and intolerable as to throw the rationality of the entire enterprise into question. This certain outcome probably accounts for why the overwhelming majority of people choose to take their chances within the division of labor, balancing the risks from which this earthly life is never entirely secure against the unparalleled wealth and comfort they can enjoy by not retreating into semi-autarky.
So the upshot, says Woods, is: people don’t want “economic freedom”! It’s miserable.
But is this at all reasonable? Take the second sentence in the above quotation: “Practically anyone in the US today who possesses the requisite knowledge and modest capital can acquire farmland and chase after the kind of self-sufficiency that Belloc advocated.” We’ve already seen that Belloc does not advocate that kind of self-sufficiency. But note how confused Woods is regarding what economic freedom really requires. What kind of modest capital does Woods think is required to own one’s own farmland and the tools required to farm it self-sufficiently? You’re not economically free, as we saw above, if the bank owns your farm. Woods is casually tossing out the idea that “practically anyone” could go ahead and become “economically free” by buying a farm and successfully living off it, because he’s confusing self-sufficiency with economic freedom. (Ignore the fact that Woods seems to underestimate—egregiously underestimate—the amount of knowledge that would be required to become self-sufficient anyway.)
Worse, once again, the “utter independence” that Woods talks about is entirely inconsistent with Belloc’s actual desires. It would be unnatural. It’s not the way for humans to live. It’s no good.
Of course, the notion that Belloc is somehow against the division of labor is clearly false, too. As we saw above, Difference of Occupation is one of the two principal limitations on ideal economic freedom. It’s part of the natural human way. It’s not an evil to be shunned, but a good to be preserved.
Last, there’s a kind of strange confusion in the whole construction of the case. Woods sets the thing up by imagining a bad situation for the Distributist family—one wherein a family can’t sell any of its goods, and hence retreats to its own devices. Then he compares that to a good outcome in a capitalist economy. Namely, one from which we can view the “self-sufficient” family’s lifestyle as depressed and intolerable. So, not from the standpoint of an unemployed mill worker who is at the end of his rope, unemployment benefits over, no jobs in sight, no idea what to do next. But from the standpoint of the happy-go-lucky, fully employed, financially flush, free person. But if we’re comparing a failure of the Distributist economy—one where the family in question literally can’t find anyone to trade with!—then shouldn’t we compare it to a failure of the capitalist economy? That is, to that unemployed mill worker? What would one prefer? To be the unemployed mill worker, wholly dependent for his sustenance on an employer who no longer needs him, and so has turned him out? Or to be the self-sufficient though lonely and isolated and indeed impoverished farm family that nevertheless has plenty to eat, has a place to sleep, and has them securely? I’d have to go with the latter.
But my point, again, isn’t to try to argue for the desirability of Bellocian economic freedom, simply to try to explain how it differs from self-sufficiency. Both are good, understood properly, but they’re not the same thing.