The Fantasy of Survivalism

Without trade, every day would be like the aftermath of disaster

The Wall Street Journal, "Commerce & Culture" , April 09, 2011

After a distant disaster like the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, people have two reactions, both rooted in identification with the victims. The first is, How can I help? The second is, How can I keep this from happening to me?

Since the quake struck Japan, the second response has triggered the survivalist instinct that is always latent in American culture: the urge to create a self-sufficient life, without the dependence implicit in even the most local trade.

Catastrophes can offer the dream of a fresh start; witness the popularity of disaster movies. Above, Amanda Peet deals with trouble in the 2009 film "2012."

For individuals, the survivalist instinct usually translates into stockpiling anything that might come in handy in a similar disaster: food, water, tools, medicine. This just-in-case mentality helps explain why shoppers as far away from Japan as Plano, Texas, were reportedly stocking up on potassium iodide against the threat of radiation. Maybe there's no danger now, they seemed to be thinking, but you never know when you might need those pills and won't be able to get them. (Besides, houses in Plano are huge, and pills don't take up much space.)

A certain amount of precaution is simple prudence, of course. If, like me, you live in Los Angeles, it's wise to keep plenty of water and other supplies on hand. Serious earthquakes are rare, but unlike hurricanes and blizzards, they strike without warning. You won't have time to shop right before the Big One hits.

But the survivalist instinct mostly plays to a perverse fantasy. It's both comforting and thrillingly seductive to imagine that you're completely independent, that you don't need anyone or anything beyond your home, that you can master any challenge. In the survivalist imagination, a future disaster becomes a high-stakes opportunity to demonstrate competence and superiority.

We also get a pleasurable frisson of fear from contemplating the collapse of the literal and metaphorical structures of civilization, from highways and skyscrapers to systems of trade and communication. Imagining catastrophe offers an escape from the banality of a materially secure existence and the petty stresses of ordinary life. It gives us a chance to envision a fresh start. Witness the popularity of disaster movies and of peak-oil theories.

But these escapist pleasures can encourage misleading conclusions about reality.

"Globalization has made the economy more fragile," declares trade hawk Clyde Prestowitz in a blog post pointing to the disruption in the supply of Japanese-made semiconductors. He takes a legitimate lesson of the earthquake—the old supply-chain wisdom of using dual sourcing for essential goods—and twists it into a general denunciation of global trade.

His conclusion has the ironic result of suggesting that geographically concentrated businesses would somehow be less vulnerable to shock. But natural disasters happen in America, too. Instead of urging more diversification, the antitrade prescription winds up suggesting less—hardly a recipe for resilience. Besides, dependence on local sources is still dependence.

Victor Davis Hanson of the Hoover Institution, a committed agrarian, takes the survivalist instinct further. The problem, he suggests, isn't foreign trade. It's specialization more generally. Our society is full of ignorant urbanites who don't know how to make what they use. That ignorance makes us vulnerable. "Those who, in extremis, are able to produce their own food and shelter are far more autonomous, and far better able to react to adversity," he writes in a blog post.

A subsistence economy like Haiti, one might conclude, is more resilient than Japan. Or, by the same logic, the rich America of today is more vulnerable to economic depression than the rural America of 1930. Neither is true, of course. Another obvious benefit of trade is that help can come from outside.

Here we get a hint of the survivalist instinct's fundamental error. In focusing on extreme situations, it forgets about the capacities built up during less-stressful times. Self-sufficiency limits knowledge and productive skills to whatever a single individual or locality can comprehend. Specialization and trade allow the system to expand those capabilities almost without limit. What looks like ignorance permits the growth of knowledge.

Carried to their logical conclusions, survivalist arguments would sever the very connections that make modern societies like Japan prosperous and resilient. If Japan were an isolationist nation of rice farmers, its suffering would indeed have fewer effects on our distant shores. We wouldn't notice the absence of its people or what they produce, because we would have never gained from their efforts nor they from ours. Outside the quake zone, ordinary times would be indistinguishable from the current catastrophe. Every day would be like the aftermath of disaster.