Monday, February 15, 2016

Autarky for All

What’s the point of political devolution in a world of globalist economics, where democracy can’t change a thing because there’s no world government to hold multi-nationals in check?  A good question, to which the answer is to reject not only over-centralised government but also over-centralised economics.  Demand autarky for all.

Autarky – self-sufficiency – is a principled response to globalist economics.  It’s a product of the ‘Historical’ school of economics that arose in 19th century Germany and included such giants as Max Weber and Joseph Schumpeter.  Adherents maintained that economics could only be understood within the cultural context of a specific historical era, and not using standardised formulae or theories.  They were also often concerned with the plight of the common worker.  Autarky in the form of European preference has since been defended by the French Nobel Prize winner Maurice Allais.

Autarky is not against trade but views it as a way to obtain only those things that can’t be produced domestically.  The reason is to subjugate economics to politics, allowing ‘costs’ and ‘benefits’ to be expressed in broader, especially non-monetary terms.  The aim is not to exclude imports, but to exclude dependence, especially in terms of vital needs like energy and food that could become the subject of foreign economic reprisals.  This can be attempted at any scale but the full effect can only be seen to work at something approaching a continental scale, say an internal market running into the hundreds of millions of people and thus able to support the full range of products.  Any continent will do.  For example, why should the Chinese invest their surplus in Europe – or be allowed to do so by Europeans – when they still have unmet needs of their own?

The result is an avoidance of over-specialisation.  It therefore rejects many of the most sacred free market dogmas.  It’s the opposite, indeed, of economism, the idea that life is about short-term profit: always man as producer and consumer, never as colleague and citizen.  In The Wealth of Nations, Scotsman Adam Smith famously described how the manufacture of pins could be massively increased by division of labour.  Wessexman William Barnes, in Views of Labour and Gold, pointed out that such wonderful productivity levels have unacknowledged human costs.  There’s the insecurity in the market for jobs and wages that comes with having too narrow a skill, plus potentially the impaired health of repetitive strain or unwholesome working conditions.  Smith had largely admitted as much, and had seen a role for the State in relieving the results, but such reservations are rarely remembered when the story of the pin factory gets quoted today.

What’s true for the individual can be true for society at large: ‘economic growth’ continues without effective challenge as the supreme goal of public policy, despite the evidence that everywhere it results in huge environmental damage and social disruption.  Economics is said to be subject to ‘iron laws’, while everything else – ecology, culture, sentiment – is judged infinitely malleable.  Globalism, by insisting that nowhere is off-limits, that nowhere is allowed to defend itself, because that would be a ‘distortion’, encourages this race to the bottom.  Protectionism – economic protection – is everywhere decried but neither environmental protection nor social protection is possible without subordinating corporate actions to political will.

The United States is equipped with a very strong political will to use regulations and subsidies (and foreign policy) to pilot an economy that’s privately owned, though with public ownership of utilities and other resources on a scale that would astonish Thatcherites.  Paradoxically, the US is much better at all of this than we are in ‘socialist’ Europe, where we’re still over-reacting against the Cold War era in ways so accommodating to big business that they often appear suicidal.

From a long-term perspective, economism actually weakens economic power, because it under-values the other factors holding vulnerability at bay, such as political independence, assured resource availability and demographic stability (who pays the promised pensions?)  Note that all of these can be just as real, in a materialist sense, as economic factors, and in their long-term consequences can be even more transforming.

Markets are a means, not an end.  So too are States.  We currently have the worst of both worlds – anarcho-tyranny – in which States have largely abdicated their grand political function as governments but retained and expanded their bureaucratic power to regulate the problems arising from that political vacuum.  Ideas of sovereignty and a transcendent sense of history have been reduced to one of ‘managing the nation’ as a sort of imagined business: ‘UK plc’.

Western civilisation – which aims at substituting a universal market ideology for popular sovereignty – stands opposed to a European civilisation that values things other than price.  A European unity of purpose therefore demands the ability to define and defend something that differs from the familiar reality of being a protectorate of ‘the West’.  Subsidiarity needs an economic as well as a political dimension.  The solution with the lowest short-term costs attached may say ‘centralise’ but a holistic assessment may say the opposite.  Our political institutions must be ones that enable that judgment to stick.

Generals are often best-placed to warn politicians against militarism, against the hubris that will ultimately lead to catastrophic defeat.  Economists likewise need to warn against taking economics any more seriously than it deserves.

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