No to “Autarky”

The name by which a person, place, thing, or practice is called is, of course, important. Many words express varying degrees of either admiration or approval, or contempt or disapproval, for a person, place, thing, or practice. For example, the words “fragrant” and “aromatic,” and “stinky” and “reeking,” are all used to describe strong odours, but the first two imply that the odour is pleasant to the speaker or writer, while the second two that it is unpleasant. In all languages, there probably exist words denoting certain groups of people in a denigrating manner, for the simple reason that the speakers feel contempt for them. As a result, some members of the denigrated groups object to the usage of these derogatory words to refer to them.

Economists have taken to calling economic self-sufficiency or autonomy – the state wherein a people produces most or all the things they need themselves – by the rarely-used word “autarky.” Although it was probably not the intention of the originators of this usage to give self-sufficiency a bad name, this word is never used in the English language in any other context besides its economic meaning. Moreover, “autarky” is related to, or resembles, the word “autocratic,” which clearly does carry a negative connotation, since it means being self-sufficient in one’s decisions, actions, and beliefs, to the point of being impervious or indifferent to, or scornful of, other people’s views, feelings, opinions, and desires. I suspect that, for many people, the word “autarky” carries connotations of refusing or being unwilling to deal, interact, or exchange with others in the economic sphere.

Before we proceed with this discussion of the benefits and disadvantages of free trade and economic self-sufficiency, I would like to sketch very briefly the evolution of models of productive behaviour, specifically in relation to specialization and free trade, which are two of the fundamental gospels of standard economic theory today. For the vast part of human history, all human societies were self-sufficient because, first of all, they were not sufficiently populous to allow for the high degree of specialization that we find in many modern societies; secondly, these societies were largely autonomous in the sense that they rarely interacted with other societies; and third, the common attitude towards those who were different from the members of one’s group was often contempt, which tended to discourage social, economic, or any other kind of exchange. Naturally, during this lengthy period of humanity’s existence, our human ancestors were not able to create or erect the kinds of monumental structures that are the delight of tourists all over the world. In terms of human creations, apart from some rudimentary stone tools and weapons, they have left very few traces of their existence for future generations to study and marvel at.

As human societies became more populous, and as their interactions with each other also increased, it came about that they began to exchange all manner of different things with each other. These included manufactured products, animals, plants, fruits, seeds, furs and other animal skins, silk, ornaments, women for marital purposes, and slaves. An important fact about these exchanges is that they arose organically, and were not the result of a ruler’s or government’s policy, meaning that they were not imposed upon people.

In contrast, motivated by the theory of comparative advantage, which logically demonstrates that the inhabitants of two countries can mutually benefit by specializing in producing the thing or things in which they have a comparative advantage, and then exchanging the products of their labour, economists, governments, and other organisations are now imposing the model of specialization and free trade on more and more people and countries around the world. In doing so, these individuals and organizations have mistaken this tidy bit of reasoning for an invariable natural principle that operates without exception in the real world, in all places, situations, and times, and for all people. This example illustrates why I have declared that economics is not a science, for true scientists would not be satisfied with mere logical consistency or correct reasoning: they would rigorously test this belief to see if in fact it applies or is true in the real world; and even if it does apply in many situations, whether there exist situations where it does not apply or causes more harm than good. If one takes the time to perform this important step, something that most economists have never bothered to do, one will find that there are many instances where the theory of comparative advantage does not hold in the real world.

The failure to understand this important truth about comparative advantage has led many economists and their students, whose brains have been filled by their intellectually sloppy and irresponsible teachers with numerous false beliefs about the economic behaviour of human beings, to advocate policies that have done considerable harm to many people around the world, including causing some of their deaths.

Of course, I am not denying that free trade can and does have many advantages, and that its absence can cause economic hardships. As was clear during the Great Depression, when many countries raised their tariffs to protect their domestic industries, but which policy also had the effect of greatly diminishing international free trade, free trade does help to reduce the cost of many manufactured items, as well as other things such as foods. However, in the past, before economists began to meddle more and more in social, economic, and human relationships, trade arose organically, meaning it was not imposed on people. But today, due to the Economic Gospel of Comparative Advantage, many economists, governments, international institutions like the World Bank, IMF, and WTO, as well as other individuals and organizations, are imposing this practice on more and more people around the world. As a result of their frequently misguided efforts, they are causing severe disruptions in traditional models of behaviour, which disruptions in turn are causing considerable hardships for many millions of people worldwide, such as the resulting migration, both legal and illegal, of many millions of people across borders and from one continent to another in search of work.

It is generally recognized today that colonialism – the attempt to impose one’s culture, language, religion, and social structures on a foreign people – was wrong. But this realization has yet to take place in the case of what I have called economic colonialism, which is proceeding more or less unchecked in numerous countries around the world. Contrary to what many economists believe, there is nothing wrong with being economically self-sufficient. If there exists a group of people whose members are able to satisfy their physical needs, while living meaningful lives, but without consuming much or becoming addicted to or dependent on the constant economic growth and development that is preached as the ideal or best way of living by economists, then, in my opinion, they should be left alone.

Both colonialism and economic colonialism are due to what I have called the Law of Coercion, the innate human desire to make other people imitate the models of behaviour that one has observed and continues to practise. In turn, this very common tendency is predicated on the assumption that one’s particular way of life is superior to all others. A common historical example is the desire to make other people practise the religion one practises, often with bloody and tragic consequences for those who refused to adopt the conqueror’s or colonialists’ religion. It has taken humanity a very long time, measured in human terms, to arrive at the consensus that we should tolerate other people, their cultural practices, language, religion, and so forth, and not seek to change them in order to make them conform to our own practices, language, and religion. But economists, in their misguided zeal for improving people’s lives, have yet to exhibit this wisdom; and in doing so, they exhibit to the world their manifest immaturity, ignorance, and superstitious faith in their unproven theories and principles.