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Freeman Essay #79: “Escaping Modernity”

In the August 2002 Freeman I challenged those who express disgust with modern commercial society to escape it.  Such escape is within their power.  My challenge is below the fold.

Many writers have described the mishmash of emotions and ideas that motivate the “antiglobalization” protesters who have been so much in the news since the 1999 Seattle riots. To point out that many of these ideas are irreconcilably at odds with each other is now old hat. (What, for example, does it mean to be an anarchist who advocates government controls on commercial activity?)

I want here to take these ideas as seriously as possible. Perhaps we can find a way to make the protesters happy without bringing civilization to a screeching halt.

Already, any antiglobalization advocate reading this article will likely accuse me of stacking the rhetorical deck against him. “We don’t seek to crush civilization,” he might argue.

He would be wrong. The core idea of these protests is deep animosity toward commercial exchange–a gut loathing of economic activity beyond the simple sort that took place among a small handful of people living on self-sufficient medieval manors or in tiny primitive villages.

Civilization is impossible, however, without substantial commercial exchange and a deep specialization of work. It exists only when most of our economic wants are satisfied by the market–that is, by people who produce output mostly for strangers rather than for themselves, and who are guided in their decisions of what to produce not by the commands of a sovereign or by the strictures of tradition but, instead, by what each of these people perceives to be his own best means of prospering. And in the market the signals that guide producers come principally from the prices determined by consumers voluntarily spending their own money.

In short, civilization requires wealth, and wealth requires a free market, extensive commerce, and a deep division of labor. Will Durant put it nicely: “Every cultural flourishing finds root and nourishment in an expansion of commerce and industry. . . . For society, as well as for an individual, primum est edere, deinde philosophari–eating must come before philosophy, wealth before art.”

But no law requires anyone to value civilization. Someone might well decide that civilization’s fruits, no matter how succulent and healthy, aren’t worth the downside.

And there indeed is a downside. It’s one that to most of us is so insignificant relative to the upside that we seldom think of it. But the downside is real, and it is the focus of many of those who so bitterly loathe the market. The downside is that everyone in civilization is enormously dependent on the choices and actions of millions of others. Every civilized person depends on the creativity, efforts, and choices of countless strangers spanning the globe.

Millions of people whom I don’t know worked to produce the seemingly simple breakfast I ate this morning, the clothes I now wear, and the house now sheltering me. Were I suddenly to find myself alone or with just family and friends, even on an island with abundant and easily accessible supplies of all of the world’s natural resources, I would be poor beyond the imagination of modern man. How would I refine the petroleum into gasoline for my car? Indeed, how would I get a car? How could I spin yarn and weave textiles to make clothes? How could I produce the sinus medication that daily keeps me from sneezing, or the stomach medications that saved my son’s life when he was seriously ill two years ago? How could I write these words? (Forget that my little group and I couldn’t hope to make a computer and word-processing program; we couldn’t even make paper and pencil.)

Cooperation of Strangers

Our prosperity absolutely requires the cooperation of innumerable strangers. These strangers, though, can change their minds and their actions. It’s advantageous to specialize in the production of, say, steel–as long as the millions of people who buy your steel continue to want it. But these consumers might come to prefer aluminum. Or some other stranger might figure out a way to produce steel more efficiently than you produce it. Any number of changes can occur that make it more difficult for you to continue to prosper by producing steel.

This cosmic dependence on others undoubtedly creates anxiety for some people. I don’t feel this anxiety, but I cannot stand in judgment of those who find it colossally fearsome. My only gripe with antiglobalization protesters is that they selfishly insist that everyone sacrifice civilization’s benefits so that they can be relieved of their idiosyncratic anxiety.

Fortunately, anyone so disliking market forces that he truly wants to escape them can do so while leaving the rest of us alone. All such a person must do is to find a few acres of land and become self-sufficient. (The Unabomber did this with his shack in Montana, although he wasn’t quite true to his principles, relying as he did upon the postal service and its many industrial machines to deliver his letter bombs.)

My colleague Tyler Cowen has researched the matter and found that for $3,000 someone can build a livable cabin. Of course, it would be Spartan–for example, no plumbing. Self-sufficiency requires also a few acres of land on which to grow and hunt food. The world has plenty of that. Even in the United States an acre of good rural land can be bought for about the price of a roundtrip coach airfare from New York to Seattle. Fact is, escaping market forces truly is easy to do. Once free of the market, the self-sufficient individual would no longer worry about matters such as European trade policy, Japanese demand for lumber, or currency speculation. These concerns and thousands of similar ones would vanish.

But escapees from commerce should beware that countless other uncertainties and concerns will arise. A drought or insects might destroy an entire crop, bringing on starvation. A child might die of an infection untreated by antibiotics. Women stand significant risks of dying from childbirth. And while escapees would be free of the taint of participating in greed-driven global commerce, they would suffer the taint of bodily filth. Running water, antibacterial soap, shampoo, floss, toothpaste, laundry detergent, several clean changes of clothing, and other such mundane items would be unavailable.

Please don’t think I’m joking. I’m serious. Escaping commerce and commercial culture is genuinely easy to do for those really wishing to do so and who are willing to deal with the full consequences of this decision. There is no need, therefore, for such haters of commerce to insist that those of us who enjoy modernity and commerce travel back with them to a pre-industrial hell.