When was the last time you stalked prey, ran it down and then ate it? That’s not a realistic question, is it? I mean silly, right? I’ll skip over asking if you’ve crafted your own weapons with which to hunt game, I know most people have not and the creation of the most basic tools an individual can make is a skill that vanishingly few people can exhibit. When was the last time you planted seeds, watched them grow, and then harvested the crop? Well, all of us have probably tended a garden in our lifetimes. Agriculture is in just about everybody in some way. There is something real about digging in the dirt and watching plants grow. Something very zen and rewarding about the entire process. However, gardening is definitely not the same as growing everything you need to survive all by yourself year in and year out.
Why am I asking these questions? Because that is what it means to be truly self-sufficient. To be able to produce the food you require independently. To be able to create all of the tools and clothing you require to survive in any climate in any region of the world. If I were to ask you about building your own shelter, even fewer people would understand just how difficult that process and others are. They would be clueless as to just how many people are required to create the many things we take for granted. Take for granted (i.e. an entitlement) especially in the US and other developed countries.
I have heard the challenge, repeated many times over my years in libertarian circles, to prove the existence of society. It is almost a mantra to some individualists, and I know there are survivalists out there who are convinced they could live on their own indefinitely. Some of them even can do it, I’m sure, but the number of people who could do it are a fraction of a percentage point of the entire human population. That is a pretty steep hill to drop off of, if the lights just go off one night and never come back on.
Coming from the other direction, the number of people the Earth could support if everyone had to live a hunter-gatherer life is probably less than one billion people. I haven’t seen anyone do a back of the envelope calculation on that in several years, so my number is off I’m sure. The point is that the number of people the world can support in a primitive lifestyle is smaller than the number of people our established technology can support. The systems built and maintained over centuries by people who just want to see their children have it easier than they did, to be able to survive without having to claw their way through every day wondering if they’d make it through the next day.
The nine-to-fiver who complains about the cost of his latte has no clue, none at all, just how many people who had to labor to get him his coffee with milk in a container that he could just throw away when he’s had enough caffeine to keep him alert. And he gets that tasty beverage in exchange for a promissory note, a debt instrument, money, that the retailer then passes back down the chain eventually to the field workers in a far away country that actually touch the soil and grow the coffee that he thinks he paid too much for.
All of this, the high numbers of people, the ease of access to goods and services, the ability to do some task divorced from producing sustenance for yourself directly and still be fed, clothed, sheltered? All of it is evidence of society. Money is evidence of society, all by itself. Money is a socialist system, a system that exists because there are others to trade with in the first place. Without the group’s agreement, you’d still be running down prey like your ancient ancestors did, and hoping that the animal didn’t injure you before you killed it.
Watching the seventh season of The Walking Dead, I was struck by the notion that the entire group still wears clothing that doesn’t visibly disintegrate when they move. Seven years on, they still aren’t spinning and weaving thread and cloth. Patching shirts and jackets. For that matter the vehicles still run after being essentially without maintenance on the side of the road for years. Gasoline still burns even though (as anyone who has experience with small engines can attest) you’re lucky if you can get a lawn mower engine to start after it’s been sitting idle through one winter. Lucky to get it started because the fuel itself is unstable and will degrade over time. Rick and Carl and the rest of the crew? They’d be walking or riding horses everywhere by now because the fuel to run modern vehicles can’t be easily created without a vast infrastructure of technology that very few people understand.
That’s television, you say? Of course it is. It’s fantasy. And so is the notion that any of us are truly self-sufficient. None of us can replicate even the most simple of machines that we rely on daily, and yet we delude ourselves into thinking that we are capable and independent. Rational actors on a vast, mathematically predictable stage. That ability to delude oneself in that fashion? That too is evidence of society. Flat Earthers are a modern invention, and absolute proof of society’s existence. You don’t question that the Earth is round when you watch the people who will bring back your dinner tonight sail over the horizon to catch fish. The curvature of the Earth is as evident as the gnawing hunger in your belly.
I first thought about writing a post like this one after listening to this episode of Freakonomics,
I was inspired by the complexity of the process of creating one of the oldest tools modern man utilizes, the simple wooden pencil. As the episode goes into, the pencil is hardly simple at all. It took generations of tinkering and tweaking to create the object that you and I think of as a pencil when we say the word “pencil”. This TED talk portrays the complexity of the subject more quickly,
Unfortunately the video is hosted on Facebook only. I apologize for the cludgy video interface design that comes along with that; the parts that aren’t directly copied from YouTube, I mean. Modern technology is so much not like the pencil. Facebook’s baldly abrasive and ham-handed attempts to acquire all internet traffic for itself are a hallmark of poor design, but that is a different subject for some other day. The subject for today is how the simplest of objects that we take for granted, a toaster, a pencil, are beyond the ability of any one person to put together and have work properly. So much for the dreams of rugged individualism and self-reliance. Would you mind passing me that cup of tea, please?
The triumphs of the free market are actually nothing like triumphs of the free market. They are products of society, government and business working together. This is the part of the human equation that most individualists simply cannot wrap their minds around. None of us get exactly what we want. Not even the wealthiest of wealthy men gets exactly what they want out of life. To the extent that anyone’s needs are met it is done through cooperative effort. Like-minded people working together for a common goal. The most that any individual can do by himself is survive, and that only for the brief instant that their life contains. If that’s all you want out of life, survival, then you really are a pathetic creature. I grieve for you.
Here’s some evidence of the government funding that Mazzucato’s talking about. DARPA, or the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, created during the Cold War to keep American technology ahead of the Soviets, has over the years produced several kinds of missiles and airplanes as well as the first computer mouse, miniature GPS receivers, HD displays, and a digital personal assistant. ARPA-E, or the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, founded under George W. Bush, has funded a variety of energy projects, including battery-storage tech; the Department of Energy, starting in 1978, invested more than $130 million studying the extraction techniques that have come to be known as fracking. And the National Institutes of Health has helped fund the vast majority of all new drugs approved by the FDA.Stephen J. Dubner
Editor’s note: January, 2020 – I updated links for the content that is hosted off-site. TED added their Facebook only content onto Youtube and their own website. Freakonomics now forces me to link to their content on Stitcher to embed it. It would have been nice if they had done some of this work for themselves, giving me links to the Stitcher locations for each episode. Instead I had to search, find, and then rebuild the embed for both episodes I link here. Such is the life of a blogger who is his own editor and website manager.