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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Guest's picture

Excellent post. I believe, however, that growing your own food actually raises ones standard of living - relative to health and nutrition.
Processed, packaged, store-bought groceries are never as fresh, nutritious or valuable as wild or organic, non-GMO and unprocessed table fare. Check out the prices for organically grown carrots at the local health food store.
The same concepts can apply to other areas of self-sufficiency. I've spent time among the Mennnonite community here and their sewing, woodworking and building skills are second to none.
Point is, many of the items we think raise our standard of living are in fact produced cheaply overseas. Granted, I wouldn't be able to make my own HD-TV, but from my years in the cable business dealing with cheaply manufactured electronic equipment, I'm not so sure that owning a 72-inch plasma television bumps me up to the next rung of the SOL (Standard of Living) ladder.

Guest's picture

>> 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.<<

This is right on target. My partner and I run a design and communications studio on very little, wiped out all our debt, use only cash to buy and purchased land for homesteading -- a goal we're slowly working toward and hope to be entrenched in within 5-8 years. But it's been a long, rough road and it's easy to see how even the most well-intentioned people would say forget it and give up.

The movie "Off the Map" is a great depiction of how the simplicity and freedom of that kind of life really is achingly attractive.

Philip Brewer's picture

Having a garden definitely raises your standard of living.  Producing all your own food, though, probably lowers it--it takes so much time that you can't do that and also have a job, so now you're stuck with no good way to get money to buy the stuff you can't produce yourself.  (It's hard to sell enough carrots--even high-priced, organic carrots--to pay your taxes, let alone do that and also buy the occasional hoe and wheelbarrow.)

If you have more than one adult in your household, one can work at a regular job and then another can do things like grow food and make clothes and furniture.  In fact, you probably hit a sweet spot if you have several others doing those things.  It's this pressure that results in so many attempts at self-sufficiency structured as communes.

Guest's picture

Neat post. I think in terms of a continuous spectrum with self sufficiency on one end and "wage slavery" on the other. A lot is said about the extremes but most folks' sweet spot is somewhere in between.

And Good Neighbors / The Good Life is a great show.

Guest's picture

I really get tired of terms like "wage slavery". Only in America are people so well off they can whine about actually having a job. The real "slavery" is to people's desire for material things. People cry about never getting ahead, but they smoke, drink, have an Ipod, cable, 2 new cars, kids playing 2 sports, go out to eat several times a week, etc. And if you bring those things up, you would think they were being asked to live in a 3rd world country by giving them up. The rich (i.e. The Millionaire Next Door kind) are not taking anything from people or enslaving them by earning and keeping more money.

Philip Brewer's picture

If expressions like "wage slavery" are meant to carry with them the implication that people are helpless to resist, then I agree that they don't reflect reality.

On the other hand, they certainly reflect the perceptions that a lot of people have--a sense of being trapped in a system that's stacked against them.  Because of that, I think they're valuable terms for people (like me) who are trying to show people a way out. It's useful to be dramatic when you're trying to educate people about the trade-offs involved in choosing to live within their means.

They may also be useful for people who are trying to make political changes.  For  example, the law right now lets a bankruptcy judge wipe away essentially all of a debt-ridden business's debt--money owed to suppliers, employees, a pension fund, etc.  A bankruptcy judge can't do the same thing with an individual's debt--an individual with any sort of regular income can't write his debt off without going through a multi-year process of court-supervised debt repayment, a bankruptcy judge can't wipe out mortgage debt, etc.  Rhetorical flourishes like "wage slavery" and "debt peonage" may be useful in the political arena for people trying to make the system fairer.

Guest's picture

I know how to knit, and I could knit a wool sweater but why would I when I can buy one at Salvation Army for $4? The wool yarn alone would cost $30-$50 without the time involvement. The same with quilts. I bought a handmade quilt from a neighbor woman, and it cost $400 (she told me that for as long as it took her to make it, she made pennies per hour). I could have bought one from WalMart for $30. I don't have an answer for it. I do have a garden, though, and do support organic/local farmers when I can.

Guest's picture

The old Gary Cooper movie Meet John Doe touches on some of this. Their term for "wage slave" is "helot".

If you don't want to watch the entire movie (I highly recommend it; they sometimes carry it in the $1 DVD rack at WalMart), then here's a relevant clip.

Philip Brewer's picture

"Meet John Doe" looks both fascinating and on-topic.  I'll watch it soon.

Guest's picture
Rick Francis

There is a good reason that self-sufficiency is so difficult- it means that you have to give up specialization. Specialization gives gigantic productivity advantages and can allow for economies of scale. If you are a substance farmer does it make any sense to buy a tractor or other expensive improvements?

Personally I do NOT want to go back to the Stone Age... I like knowing that I won't starve if I have bad luck one year. I also like being able to have the wondrous things I would never be able to make on my own.

>The whole structure of the economy is designed for people to >work for wages and then buy what they need

Yes and it is a wonderful system... pick any item from the computer that you are typing at to the clothes you are wearing. Take the cost of the item and divide it by your hourly wage. Now, is there any POSSIBLE way you could have made that item in that much time, even if you had all the raw materials? Could you do it even if you had all of the tools needed to convert the raw items into the finished goods?

>--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.

Where are the rules that say that the rich are the only ones that can own businesses? I plan to become rich by spending less than I earn and investing the difference so that I'm a partial owner of many businesses. True, rich investors will make more than I do by investing more money, but shouldn't they get more return for their added risk?

"Debt slavery" is the result of bad choices... No system can prevent bad choices without removing individual freedom as well.

-Rick Francis

Guest's picture

Rick, I don't think he's arguing that it's bad to earn money, whether by working for wages or by entrepreneurial ventures. Or as Philip puts it, "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." You are exactly on the same page as far as that goes.

I think the point about partial self-sufficiency is that learning to do at least some things yourself is a form of diversification (just outside the financial markets). You get to practice a broader range of skills and resources in case cost-benefit ratios change in the future. Some people might even develop expertises that would help them to develop businesses in the future. These are potential benefits in addition to the personal satisfaction doing things yourself can bring.

Philip Brewer's picture

Michelle has pretty much covered what I'd have said.  Specializing in whatever pays best is going to give you a much higher standard of living.  It is, though, a standard of living that's brittle--you're vulnerable to general economic downturns, to the failure of your current employer, or even to a simple personality conflict with a single boss.

The boost in standard of living that comes from specialization and trade is so huge, most people will make that choice anyway.  (Choosing self-sufficiency is truly a quixotic alternative.)   Having said that, a bit of strategic partial self-sufficiency can make your situation less prone to catastrophic failure, and that can make your household a lot more secure.

Guest's picture

We plan on becoming mostly self sufficient within 10 years or so...I will still continue to write and do internet stuff, but hopefully won't need to do it to just to survive the day to day, but rather to learn more, travel, do things we want to to - not just pay a mortgage and credit card debt. A combination of a paid-for solar/wind/water catchment house along with the ability to grow crops will enable us to at least start living that dream!

Guest's picture
Cindy M

I've admired the self-sufficiency off-the-grid kind of folks for years. Always thought the idea of living among likeminded folks into bartering/trading with their skills was cool. I'm to the point where I'm striving on a personal level not to spend much on anything other than true necessities, staying away even from thrift stores or garage sales, checking out freebies and giveaways instead. Even dragged out my sewing machine. Found a delightful website, threadbangers; wow, these teens are so resourceful and creative. I have 3 closetsful of nice things, would probably never have to buy another outfit. I find myself these days with the mindset to seriously look at all I own and figure other uses if possible. And there are so many well done how-to videos out on the net now.

Philip Brewer's picture

Especially in the abstract.  I love the idea of self-sufficiency.  I suspect, though, that I'd love the reality less.  It'd clearly be a huge amount of work.

My own plan, much as I discuss here, is to gradually move closer to self-sufficiency.  (For me it's one of those "it's the journey, not the destination" things.)

Guest's picture

It certainly is quaint to grow your own food or to knit a sweater...but c'mon folks, you can buy practically anything for a fraction of your own personal time, labor, materials to produce. Self-sufficiency...simply focus on what you do best, earn and save...then buy any darn thing that you want!

Philip Brewer's picture

There's no doubt that working for money and then buying what you want will provide a higher standard of living.  The thing is, standard of living is not the one true metric for happiness and satisfaction.  Some people value quaintness for its own sake.  Lots of people appreciate things that they make with their own hands (or the hands of friends or relatives) even if they could have bought one that was just as good or better.

Guest's picture
Brandon W

"Standard of living" is an economics term, but "standard of living" does not equal quality of life.

Guest's picture

You always have great posts.....
and of course this is a good one too. But the way you wrote the article it seems there is something wrong with the rich. I am not rich but the vast majority of "rich" Americans are a hard working, frugal lot. They are not the Paris Hiltons. They are folks who started a business and grew it and employed people who are middle class. I dont like the term poor.. Poor is not forever. A lot of people are broke trying to keep up. But if the "poor" were to look to the rich they would find a frugal way of living and hard work which keeps one away from broke.

Philip Brewer's picture

Thanks for the kind words.

I think one of the principles behind Wise Bread is that the tactics of the rich--frugality, avoiding debt, saving and investing, education, diversity of income sources--are beneficial to everyone.  Spreading the word on that is one of our goals.

I think too, though, that the system makes it a lot easier for the rich to use those tactics than for the poor.  It sets up a situation where it's hard for people who feel trapped in the system to see the various paths to freedom.

My goal above was not to make "the rich" out as bad guys, but rather to acknowledge the ways the system can make poor people feel trapped--because I think you have to come to terms with those feelings before you can have an intelligent discussion about the ways that the tactics of the rich can help the poor.

Guest's picture

We recently converted part of our small New England city backyard into an intensive organic garden, and in less than a year we're already seeing the benefits.

On our little patch of land (about 1/3 an acre) we've got 14 blueberry bushes, a peach tree, blackberries, strawberries and tons of produce - everything from beets and broccoli to habanero peppers and tomatoes - growing in seven 16' x 4" garden beds. We left a small tuft of grass for the dog to run around on, but otherwise it's all productive.

The startup costs were nothing to sneeze at - we spent almost $600 for plants and materials, including piping for a homemade gravity fed drip irrigation system fed by rain barrels.

It really has paid off, though. In a few months we've already "made back" about half of that on food savings.

Right now, we're freezing and canning hundreds of pounds of yummy organic food for the winter. We just purchased a second freezer, and it's almost full.

It's not that hard to do, either. We work full time, so it was important for us to keep it easy. We use newspaper and straw marsh hay to cut down on weeding, and spend maybe 3-4 hours a week working in the garden (staking tomatoes, light weeding, harvesting produce). Canning and freezing get done at night, and add another 2 hours a day during the harvest season.

I've tried knitting and came to the same conclusion as everyone else - the yarn is more expensive than getting a ready-made sweater. But with food prices rising, growing your own victory garden makes sense.

Guest's picture
Lana Calcote----Guest

Can you please send me some info on your homemade gravity fed drip irrigation system fed by rain barrels---I would like to do this and am researching on how to set it up..Please send info to my home email. you so much..

Guest's picture

Much of the demands of self-sufficiency can be decreased if it involves more than one person.

Right now I'm trying to clear and prep a 260 sq. ft area. It has been very difficult because I need to find the time to do it.

My wife is too busy so it's just me. If I had just one more person, I could have finished in an afternoon.

More people = exponential less time even if you have more space to work.


Philip Brewer's picture

I actually wrote a post on exactly that topic:  Strategies for households with more than one adult.

There are, of course, a lot of trade-offs involved.  Each person can contribute to the work, but also (of course) needs to eat, needs a place to sleep, and so on.  Certain other things (such as health insurance) also get complicated once you go beyond two adults.

Guest's picture

specialization looks risky to me, no matter if you know to do one thing well or invest your money in one company only
secondly, self-sufficiency allows me a better peace of mind knowing that i can do so many things alone
when i do something for myself- a bike, a cloth, food anything- it relaxes me so i don't spend money because i'm stressed- and it saves me time and nerves when i look for what i want and nobody makes the thing the way i desire
thirdly- whatever i buy there is a tax that i pay too- by doing things my way i pay the tax only when i buy raw materials- if i don't have them already or can't obtain them in a different way

Guest's picture

Could you send me the info on drip irrigation too??

I'm trying hard to migrate way from the grocery store for all but dairy (we're not allowed to have chickens or small goats in our area).

My blue berry bushes keep dieing - something about the ground/soil. The local extension office only covers flowers & pretty
gardens - not home food gardens & plants so, if anyone has any info on that please drop me a line too.

Good article Mr. Brewer. thank you :-)

Specialization can hurt you in many ways - you get laid off & what if no one needs your skill set??
What else can you do to earn money?
I'm brilliant at what I do 9-5 but I want to be able to hobble along if I get laid off and can't find work. If I can make things at home then that'll allow the money I have saved to last longer.
If someone is looking for one of the skill sets I've developed outside of my day job then that could help me out too.

We(my kid & I ) already sell our soda bread to a farmer's market vendor and several individuals. Next year we're thinking of having our own booth for bread, baked goods and small starter plants.
The rustic furniture we build is sturdier then what we see at the store & the food we make usually tastes better then the restaurants. I don't see the point in buying what I can do better.
We buy maybe one electronic device a year & I do think it's worth it to pay someone else for those special devices - I don't think it's worth paying someone for things I can do myself.

For some reason after world war two people wanted to get away from their factory & manual labor jobs - the factory job came to be looked down upon. My Grandpa and 3-4 of his siblings were a factory line workers so I saw this with in my own family. They all wanted their kids to go to college, have office jobs and never get their hands dirty.
I'd rather be a millionaire with dirt under my nails then running the rat race with immaculate skin & clothes.