Arguments for Autarky

Our neoliberal regime loves to fawn over “our globalized world” and our “interconnectedness”. A crucial element to this has long been the doctrine and practice of free trade. Autarky on the other hand is seen as backwards and inefficient or simply “impossible”. In this article I present a number of arguments for why autarky should be pursued by all countries. The article as a whole however, is not written in order to convince the reader to support complete autarky unconditionally and immediately. It instead lists argument in favor of autarky, in order for the concept to gain broader sympathy and attention in future policy debates. We will call non-autark states “trading states”.

1. Trade deficits and rivalries

If a trading state considers its trade deficit to have negative effects on its economic, political or social life, it may seek to remedy this violently. The trade deficit could also pose an obstacle for broader diplomacy with a specific country that it has a trade deficit with. Similarly trade rivals may threaten to eclipse ones own exports and thus endanger the economy. Autark states, by definition, do not have trade deficits (especially not larger ones). Thus autark states will never seek violent conflict to remedy a trade deficit or have a trade deficit or rivalry be an obstacle in diplomacy.

Example: Whatever you may think the occasion for the first world war was, it is generally agreed upon that its deeper causes lay in the rivalry between Germany and Britain. This rivalry was the result of a race for trade hegemony: Because the Industrial revolution started in Britain, the country “had been the largest trader and manufacturing producer in the world” during the 19th century.1 “Germany […] did not begin its industrial expansion until after national unity was achieved in [1871]. Once begun, Germany’s industrial production grew so rapidly that by the turn of the century that nation was outproducing Britain in steel and had become the world leader in the chemical industries.”2 “The surge of German exports began in 1895. On the eve of WWI, German exports were three times more important than in 1890. Germany had become the second largest exporter of manufacturing products, just behind the UK […] The German commercial navy was the third biggest in the world […] German products invaded world markets at a faster rate than US ones…”3 “New lobbies emerged in favor of a strengthening of Germany’s international expansion beyond Europe, notably the Kolonialverein […] and the Flottenverein (the Navy League), which were heavily sponsored by industrialists and bankers.”4 “Britain’s share of global trade declined and its trade surplus was turned into a trade deficit by the late 19th century. This deficit was balanced however by capital inflows composed of returns on overseas investments […] London had become a deregulated global financial center dependent on capital accumulation controlled by foreign investors.”5
In light of these facts, Britain did not have a large incentive for avoiding war with Germany. If Britain would have been autark, it wouldn’t have cared about Germany’s rising economic power. Likewise, if Germany had been autark, it would not have needed a greater fleet to protect shipping routes to sales markets, to protect its food imports, or to expand its colonies.

2. Dependency leads to war

If a country’s food or energy supply is dependent on one or more imports and it sees this resource’s flow or price in jeopardy, it may find it necessary to intervene abroad militarily to secure this import. Autark states do not have imports of such importance that they would go to war over them. Therefore autark states are less likely to go to war or intervene abroad otherwise because of them.

Example: The 1953 coup attempt of the Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh carried out mainly by the CIA, was initially suggested by the British, because of their need for oil. The British-Iranian relationship had suffered after the nationalization of the Iranian oil industry and the AIOC (Anglo-Iranian Oil Company), which 51% of had previously been owned by Britain.6

3. Autarky creates security

A trading state is dependent on global transport routes and/or global production chains. Global transport routes and production chains can be disrupted by natural disasters, wars, disease and more.
If the continuity of these movements of goods are threatened by one of the above, trading states will suffer potentially severe internal disruptions and shortages, unless they quickly move to intervene wherever necessary.
Autark states on the other hand are insulated from situations like these. They suffer no negative consequences from disruptions and can close their borders to protect themselves from outside shocks without the negative side-effects that trading states would have to endure.

Example: At the beginning of the first world war, Britain started blocking the North Sea (the sea between Britain, Norway and Germany) to stop Germany from importing needed resources. The blockade was kept in place when the armistice was signed and only lifted after Germany agreed to the so-called “Treaty of Versailles”. In the meantime a famine erupted in Germany, which was at least to some degree caused by this “hunger blockade” as it came to be known. The number of people dead is hard to estimate, but likely in the hundreds of thousands.7

4. Protecting the environment

The long-distance transport which trading states rely on for their imports is in many ways harmful to the environment. Especially shipping, which damages the environment not just by emissions, but also by frequent and consistent cargo loss8 and the occasional oil spill. Autark states do not have imports and thus do not rely on long-distance transport of any kind outside their own territory. As a result they avoid the attached environmental damages.
Additionally, because autark states seek energy independence and most states don’t have large oil or coal reserves, they are likely to rely on renewable energy sources instead of burning of limited fossil fuels.

5. Responsibility

Many goods that trading states import, rely on resources or parts that are acquired or built abroad by people working under horrendous conditions like extremely low wages, an unsafe work environment, child labor or even outright slavery. The resource acquisition process itself can also be harmful to the environment in a number of ways. Often forest areas are chopped or burned down or ecosystems are poisoned by chemicals. Autark states do not import products produced under such circumstances and therefore do not contribute to the resulting suffering and destruction. While trading states can for a long time comfortably ignore the effects of their trade, autark states, who only buy products made in their own country, are themselves confronted with the side-effects of how their goods are produced. Thus they are also much more likely to take responsibility and take care of these issues.

6. Corporate accountability

Trading states mostly allow transnational corporations to operate production facilities on their territory. An autark state could decide that all production equipment must be owned by a corporation or company that belongs to citizens of its state and that the entity itself is also solely registered locally. Trading states often have problems not being able to get access to transnational corporations legally.
Just as specific production processes are easier to control by a society and its state under conditions of autarky (as explained in the previous argument), so it is easier to hold companies and corporations to account, to detect fraud and illegal activities of all kinds.

7. Innovation & know-how

Trading states do not just not have the necessary productive capacities to produce certain goods, they also lose the ability to produce it even if the production capacity was there, meaning they lose know-how. States pursuing autarky on the other hand, will not just not lose know-how, but in turn have a great incentive to strive for new ways of manufacturing or producing certain goods without the use of specific minerals.

8. Foreign labor and domestic problems

Many trading states rely heavily on foreign workers for jobs that they don’t have people qualified or unqualified enough for. These same states often simultaneously have large businesses or business sectors pushing for large scale, mostly uneducated, immigration in order to gain cheap labor and suppress wages. The costs generated by the immigrants are then passed onto the society as a whole. In, what I will now call, labor-autark states this is impossible. Instead of guest workers and immigration, the government will be forced to fix these issues domestically and make the labor supply fit the labor demand. Often this can be done by educational reform, birthrate increases or on the labor demand side: automation. Again, autarky spurs innovation and creates long-term stability, where a trading state opts for easy short-term solutions, that are fatal in the long-run.

Closing remarks

I again want to emphasize that the purpose of this article is not to argue for complete autarky now; though if you were to argue for it, you would likely use just these arguments. There are certainly also disadvantages to autarky, like price increases, resource depletion and a possible Malthusian trap. Yet, looking at these arguments one can’t help but realize that autarky is in many ways an ideal, that we should strive towards. We shouldn’t try to achieve autarky as fast as possible without regard to any costs, but we should be more conscious of what our dependencies are and what will happen and how we will react when our supply lines are endangered. We should carefully weigh costs and benefits, not just in regards to GDP, but also the wellbeing of the nation and life on earth as a whole. Are some imports really necessary? Can we make this or that product ourselves maybe without too much of a price increase? Is it really impossible to have a balanced domestic economy that can provide its people with food from its own soil? Of course it is. One of the biggest obstacles to this however is the high meat consumption in most developed countries.
In Germany for example, where the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Ernährung (German Society for Sustenance) recommends, like many other organizations, 300 to 600g of meat a week, men eat about 1100 and women 600g.9 If everyone in Germany were just to eat about 500g of meat each week, meat consumption as a whole would be more than halved, while still well within the recommended amounts. Just that alone would enable lots of land currently used for feeding livestock to be switched towards feeding humans. Additionally the livestocks in German factory farms would also be halved, which could see a drastic improvement in the animals’ welfare.


Sources:

[1] Defraigne, Jean-Christophe (2014), Is China on the Verge of a Weltpolitik. A Comparison of the Current Shift in the Balance of Power between China and the West and the Shift between Great Britain and Wilhelmine Germany, Interpreting China as a Regional and Global Power. Politics and Development of Contemporary China Series, Palgrave Macmillan, London, p.296. doi: https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137450302_15.
[2] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, Industrial Revolution, Encyclopaedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/event/Industrial-Revolution (accessed 01/30/2021).
[3] Defraigne, Jean-Christophe (2014), Is China on the Verge of a Weltpolitik. A Comparison of the Current Shift in the Balance of Power between China and the West and the Shift between Great Britain and Wilhelmine Germany, Interpreting China as a Regional and Global Power. Politics and Development of Contemporary China Series, Palgrave Macmillan, London, p.300. doi: https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137450302_15.
[4] Ibid., p.301.
[5] Ibid., p.297.
[6] All the documents related to the coup can be found on the National Security Archives:
CIA Confirms Role in 1953 Iran Coup, National Security Archives, https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB435/ (accessed 01/25/2021).
Scrolling down you can find documents full of details regarding the build-up and the carrying out of the coup itself.
[7] An analysis of the blockade can be found here, although with a slight Allied bias, but even it comes to the conclusion that “Allied economic warfare meant securing access to global resources. Their denial was one of the causes of the reduction in German food supply, along with several endogenous causes”:
Kramer, Alan (2020), Naval Blockade (of Geramany), 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War, https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/naval_blockade_of_germany (accessed 01/30/2021).
[8] Containers Lost at Sea – 2020 Update, World Shipping Council, https://www.worldshipping.org/Containers_Lost_at_Sea_-2020_Update_FINAL.pdf (accessed 01/31/2021).
[9] WHO: Verarbeitetes Fleisch krebserregend, Verbraucherzentrale, https://www.verbraucherzentrale.de/wissen/lebensmittel/lebensmittelproduktion/who-verarbeitetes-fleisch-krebserregend-12300 (accessed 02/01/2021).

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