Friday, 31 July 2015

Subsistence economies and self-sufficiency

Many of the protectionist arguments against capitalism rely on the idea of self-sufficiency and independence as a safeguard for unforeseen events. This idea wrongly stems from confusing prudence with self-sufficiency and risk mitigation with protectionism.

It is normal that after being fustigated by so many natural and human-made calamities people seek safety in self-reliance. In the absence of markets for risk protection, subsistence economies may be seen as providing such safety. Yet, such safety is achieved at an enormous cost in terms of living standards.

I shall illustrate this through the personal experience of my ancestors. Before the 1930s, most of my ancestors lived for centuries in a remote village by cultivating small plots of land. They consumed almost all they produced except for the occasional goat that they would sell to buy clothing. If the wolves decimated part of the herd or the weather ruined the harvest they would have a rough year surviving on potatoes and without replacing their rags.

It was a tough life but they were self-sufficient and independent without a need to rely on others. The same happened with the other villagers, with the exception of the only specialized inhabitant (a carpenter) who had to walk to the neighboring villages to offer his services.

My family fortune changed only when, at the age of fifteen, my father and a friend migrated to Lisbon. He survived doing multiple jobs and later returned home to work in a textile mill in a neighboring village, where he also found jobs for his sister and two of his bothers. As a result I and my five sisters had the opportunity to study and to escape the self-sufficiency trap.

The problem with small self-sufficient communities is not that they do not know about division of labor. Indeed, for those with a romanticized view of such communities, my village had a well-developed communal way of herding, a communal bakery and a kind of labor exchange.

However, isolation and small scale prevented them from participating in trade with outsiders and achieve the necessary scale and specialization needed for capital accumulation.

However, the subsequent construction of roads and communication services did break isolation but it did not stop the village decline, why?

Because the lack of transport infrastructures is not the only obstacle to the development of remote areas. Unless they are a tourist hive or their inhabitants are writers or similar professionals able to work from home for a greater market, they will not be able to combine the profit motive with the joint ownership and limited liability needed to undertake risky ventures which are indispensable for the success of capitalism.

So for many millions trapped in small communities, like my ancestors were, the simplest way out is migration.

Yet, there are many still arguing for self-sufficiency or independence in large communities. They typically invoke the lack of scale and the need to safeguard the supply of goods and services considered essential, with an elastic definition that ranges from food, social services, environment and energy. Such calls for self-sufficiency contradict Ricardo’s law on comparative advantage, probably the only consensual law in economics formulated in 1817.

And, this law is not being ignored in non-capitalist societies alone, but also in Western countries at the core of capitalism. For instance, until recently the USA had a law banning the export of crude introduced in 1975 as a retaliation against the Arab oil embargo of 1973. Yet the ban was never lifted due to opposition from oil refineries and environmental groups. Only now, after a sharp increase in oil supply brought about by the new fracking technology and geopolitical considerations, did the refiners opposition eased and there is some hope for lifting the ban.

Obviously, whether to export crude or refined products should be a business decision not a political one. However, once a country tolerates special interest groups based on protectionism it becomes almost impossible to eradicate them. Thus the importance of free trade to control rent-seeking behaviour that undermines capitalism.

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