In the wealthy Western world, many of the products we buy come from the far reaches of the earth, made by people we don’t know, with inputs about which we are ignorant. The increased number and variety of consumer products give us a range of choices that would boggle the minds of earlier generations. And technology enables us to live at such a speed that even the extra two seconds of a slow smartphone connection seem like an eternity to us. But as the world gets more complex and life seems to go faster, we hear more voices telling us to live simply and locally and slowly.
In the face of such calls, I want to defend the complex, global, and fast world in which we live. This world, which so many seem to want to reject, is a byproduct of the same economic processes that enable us to live healthier, longer, and richer lives.
The calls for simple and local living invoke a kind of romanticism about the past that is all too characteristic of the critics of capitalism. A recent “simple-living” festival in my area encouraged people to rediscover the skills that we have lost in this mechanized age. Participants engaged in wood chopping, hand tilling, and various other forms of the human-powered work that has largely been replaced by machines. We are often told that we’ve lost touch with our “real” selves and the character building that came with hard manual labor.
Of course, that argument too frequently overlooks that the period being celebrated also featured incredibly long work days outdoors, no matter the weather; meager food; little medicine; and a fraction of our life expectancy, not to mention extremely high infant and child mortality. Life on the farm was not filled with peaceful days of moderately hard work and freshly prepared meals. Cooking was a nightmare, food was scarce, heating was poor, and disease was rampant. The “live simply” crowd can’t have its cake and eat it too: we can’t all live local, simple, and slow and have the quality of life and longevity we have now.
But, say the critics, people used to be self-reliant. Isn’t that a good thing? Not really. Self-reliance, other things equal, might be desirable, but all else is not equal. The world of self-reliance is a world in which we would sacrifice specialization according to comparative advantage and lose the gains from exchange that this division of labor makes possible.
It’s true that in the wealthy West we buy more and more of what we need and make less of it ourselves. However, thanks to our complex global economy, we are able to get others to do much more for us than we could ever do ourselves. It is more than a little ironic that the critics of capitalism, who so often charge defenders of the market with desiring a world of atomized and independent individuals, would now complain that markets undermine self-reliance! In fact, markets are the greatest vehicle for social cooperation humans have ever discovered. The world of global specialization and exchange means that everything we trade is the product of cooperation among millions of producers. As Leonard Read told us decades ago, even a simple No. 2 pencil is the product of extensive social cooperation, and among strangers no less!
The complex and quick world of the globalized economy has integrated strangers from nearly 200 nations, dozens of races, and a range of ages into a web of cooperation and mutual dependence far more extensive and life-enhancing than anything socialist critics of the market could ever have dreamed of. Rather than celebrate the ways the market weaves this web, the critics of atomism romanticize that very atomism in the form of the self-reliance-induced poverty of the slow, simple, local world.
Attempts by wealthy Westerners to live like their presumably more-enlightened ancestors can never be anything more than a great big game of pretend. Even in the wonderful BBC series 1900 House, in which a British family of 1999 lived for several months as if they were in the year 1900, they had modern fire equipment and modern medical services in case of an emergency. That bit of cheating is telling.
The bottom line is that we are rich enough to play at being poor. The market has given the West such an abundance of wealth that we have forgotten the ugliness of real poverty and self-reliance, which we can only reconstruct in romanticized form as a fun leisure activity. Celebrations of living locally, simply, and slowly ultimately, if unintentionally, romanticize the poverty, death, and misery from which humans have escaped thanks to the institutions of the market. Celebrate the wealth, health, and longevity of the quick and complex global marketplace by having some variety of wine from Argentina and cheese from France your parents never heard of, lounging in a chair from China on a rug from India — and then tell the world about it in a microsecond using your Korean smartphone.