Self-sufficiency, self-reliance, and freedom
Self-sufficiency is producing the actual stuff you use--your own food, your own clothes, etc. It's not a common lifestyle. Most people chose instead to follow the path of self-reliance. Rather than directly producing the things they use, they produce something they can sell for money, or else they work for someone who will pay them money, aiming to earn enough to buy what they use.
Actual self-sufficiency takes on nearly mythic significance in the United States, because so many iconic figures in our national history were self-sufficient:
- Native Americans
- Early settlers
- The pioneers
The notion shows up in popular culture other places as well, as in the wonderful British TV series "The Good Life," (available in the US on DVD as Good Neighbors) about a couple ditching an affluent lifestyle in favor of being self-sufficient in their own little suburban plot.
The thing is, though, self-sufficiency turns out to be a hard way to live. It takes capital (in the form of land), it takes skills that most people don't have, and it takes lots of hard work. During the 1960s and 1970s there was a back-to-nature movement of people trying to be self-sufficient, often in the form of a commune (which is rather easier than trying to be self-sufficient at the level of the household or the individual). Some of those old communes are still around, but most people who tried self-sufficiency gave up pretty quickly.
The appeal of self-sufficiency never disappears, though. Just recently, as a response to environmental degradation and soaring prices for food and fuel, self-sufficiency is once again showing up, under names like urban (or suburban) homesteading. More and more people are turning their lawns into gardens, getting a few chickens (even a goat) and producing a large fraction of their own food.
As I said, though, it's a hard way to live. You can have a higher standard of living if you work for money and then buy the stuff you need--and not just a little higher; stuff that's mass produced by low-cost labor is incredibly cheap. For example, I've seen perfectly good wool sweaters at the store for less than the cost of the yarn to knit a nice sweater.
The whole structure of the economy is designed for people to work for wages and then buy what they need--and that design turns out to favor the wealthy. The poor and middle-class get a higher standard of living, and the rich get richer.
Sometimes, of course, that standard of living creeps up high enough that the household is no longer really even self-reliant. Depending on how you measure it, personal saving in the United States has been close to zero (or even negative) since 2005--and, since we know that a small number of wealthy people are saving plenty, that means that large numbers of poor and middle-class people have been spending down their savings or sinking into debt.
It's easy to make the case that our economy is structured specifically to tempt poor and middle-class folks to enjoy a higher standard of living than they can actually support. When they do, they not only make rich folks richer, they also trap themselves in the money economy. Even if you have the skills, the inclination, and the willingness to do the hard work, you can't move yourself toward self-sufficiency when you've got debts that have to be paid with money.
Once trapped in the money economy through debt, people end up stuck being little money-producing machines for the rich. It's not too extreme to call it wage slavery or debt peonage (albeit at a rather high standard of living). In any case, it is definitely not freedom.
You don't need to be self-sufficient to be free--it's good enough to be self-reliant, as long as you're careful with debt. In fact, unless you've got some capital already--such as family land--a period of self-reliance during which you live below your means and accumulate capital is probably a necessary step toward self-sufficiency.
Even then, there's some value to the tactics of self-sufficiency. Hobbies that produce something useful can often pay their own way, and are certainly better than hobbies that leave you seriously out-of-pocket. It's worth having a garden, even if you don't grow all your own food. It's worth knitting a sweater or sewing a dress, even if you don't make all your own clothes. It's worth learning how to fix a bicycle, even if you also own a car.
Think of it as strategic partial self-sufficiency. Think of it as a step on the road to freedom.
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