Economic Self-sufficiency

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The other day dad told me he considered Mexico’s relative economic self-sufficiency — that if we had to, we could, more or less, feed ourselves and scrape some living with only our national resources — one of our greatest strengths. I didn’t buy it. At all. Self-sufficiency seems to me a much overrated, much idealized kind of economic independence.


I’m not self-sufficient, neither is my father, and I’m willing to bet that if you’re reading this, neither are you. Neither is anyone that lives in a city. The only truly self-sufficient people left in Mexico (and in the world) — indians who mostly grow and tend their own food, weave their clothing, and build their huts — live in what we call extreme poverty. Not all poor people are self-sufficient but all self-sufficient people are poor. The more self-sufficient the poorer. The more self-sufficient the more bounded to their own meager abilities, to their own fragile circumstances, to the weather (now when’s the last time you worried about it?).

Rather than its opposite, competition is cooperation’s complement.

We, the codependent, have made a different bargain with the world. We betted on specialization and cooperation, and I stand by that decision. It has given us far more wealth and independence than our forebears dreamt of. I don’t think you wake up at night scared of how much the butcher has over you because the only thing you know how to do is sing. Modern cooperation is breathtaking, isn’t it? This MacBook from which I write you, this computer in which you’re reading me — they required the work and talent of thousands of people around the globe.

All this begs the question: Why? What ties these invisible threads of people around the world into building the things you need? Why don’t you fear your butcher will extort you? Why are we all so reckless as to depend on each other for our very sustenance? The answer is trade and competition. Trade is simply the name we’ve given to peaceful cooperation and is the fiber that binds the world. On the other hand, competition, as much as it’s been demonized, is simply the prerequisite of cooperation — rather than being cooperation’s opposite, it is its complement. You don’t fear your butcher because you can always go to another one (or become one!) — it’s as simple as that. Cooperation without competition is indeed the fragile, vulnerable dependence most people rightly fear. Cooperation and competition — free trade, that is — is the resilient, magic codependence to which we owe our wealth and our freedom. (Think about it the next time you hear of a trade barrier of any kind, realize how it ultimately makes you more dependent, more subject to the whims of the special interests pandered.)

So no, I don’t think our relative national self-sufficiency is anything to be particularly proud of. It’s a blessing that we live in such a fertile, bountiful land. If we turn it into an excuse for isolation it’ll be our curse.

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