Self Reliance Is A Lost Art

I recently read an article on the Legends of Appalachia: The Foxfire Museum and Heritage Center. The Foxfire Museum is located in Mountain City, GA, and is home to most of the history collected as part of the Foxfire project conducted back in the 1960’s. As a fan of the Foxfire books, I was interested to learn more about the museum, and would someday like to visit with my kids. Where better to instill in them a spirit of self reliance, something that seems lost on most of us these days.

Photo by rjones0856

This post has undergone many revisions, mostly because earlier versions were too politically-charged, or too much of a rant against one political party or the other. A dizzying news cycle also kept me from posting, because I wanted to include recent examples of our dependence on government, and that government’s lack of fiscal discipline, which has an affect on all our financial lives.

However, it became clear to me that I was taking the wrong approach. Suffices to say, both political parties are equally guilty of being fiscally irresponsible. Members of Congress have yet to fully recognize a truth many of us have learned the hard way; you can’t spend more than you have coming in without accumulating debt, and you cannot spend your way out of that debt.

While more and more people are clamoring for more protections, more benefits, and more intrusions into their lives, I wondered what the people featured in those Foxfire books would have thought. These were the type of people who didn’t eat if they didn’t work to grow and harvest the food, or raise and kill the hogs. These were the type of people who turned to their neighbors, and their family, and their churches when they needed help. They were off the grid well before, and long after, there even was a grid!

So what changed? Why did this life of simplicity not take hold? The article I mentioned in the opening cites the Foxfire Museum director as saying during tough economic times their attendance tends to increase. Why is that? Are we only concerned with taking care of ourselves in rough times? Should we not also be concerned with it in good times, so we don’t have to be worried about it in the tough times?

I’ve always been a fan of self reliance, and though I am not the most “green” person around, I enjoy finding more and more ways to take care of my family, and myself, without depending on others. But “dependence” is a tough thing to define.

I depend on my employer to provide me with a job so that I can buy food I cannot grow to feed my family. I depend on many of you, my readers, to supplement the salary from my employer so that I can provide shelter, and clothes and a other things for my family. I depend on a fire department to come if I need them to help put out a fire in my home. I don’t grow enough food to live off, and I don’t produce anything to sell for money (other than the lines I write here). I certainly don’t have the ability to stop a raging inferno in my attic. So to say that I do not rely on others is a farce.

Even those living a caveman-like existence, or a life tucked away in a remote stretch of New Zealand, rely on others for their land, food, and basic medical services, should they need them. I am certainly not advocating we all return to a life of such meager existence, though such an existence seems appealing to those of us surrounded by mortgages, car payments and sky-rocketing utility payments.

Soon we will likely see the end of this recession, and along with it, an end to a renewed interest in living a simple, frugal lifestyle. Most in our society will again find “the good times” an opportunity to spend money frivolously today, and be much less concerned with tomorrow. Savings rates will dip. Consumer debt will increase. The price to own a home, go to college, or buy a loaf of bread, will resume its steady upward march.

It is sad, in a way, that we have forgotten the lessons of our founders, and more recently, our grandparents and great-grandparents. They lived by the motto, “cash on the barrel,” avoiding debt, and buying things only if they had the money up front. They took pride in accepting the least amount of help possible, but gave generously to help those in their immediate community who fell on hard times.

My answer to what happened: debt happened. Readily available credit changed the face of our society forever. From the everday consumer to the highest levels of government. The easier it became accumulate debt, the more we sank ourselves into it. And the more we relied on institutions (banks, government, etc.) to provide those things we once took care of ourselves.

Some will argue that debt helped us grow our economy to the size it is today. Others will point out that without debt, few of us could afford to be in a home. Defenders of recent government stimulus plans and bailouts will cite a need to spend and grow deficits to reverse the recessionary trends we saw in 2008 and 2009.

My question is this:  What would have happened if we did nothing? Would we be any worse off in ten years? Would we be any worse off today?


  1. I don’t have an answer to your question, FD, but I do wonder if you’ve read Walden?

    It’s interesting how hundreds of years ago some people already felt this pull towards some self-determination that they felt society was smothering out.

    Perhaps you and I would both have felt we should all be striving to light our own fires back in the caveman times. 😉

  2. I watched a very interesting program on public tv the other night called History Detectives. This episode featured a family that had remnants of a train car holding up the foundation of there very nice home. It was very interesting to watch how they uncovered the mystery of the train car — turns out post WWII many homes were built with just what was available to them — turns out in this instance a trolley car. But what struck me was how these people built homes as they could afford them — adding on over time as they had the fund to do so. A reverse of what is done today — financing more home than you have cash for and paying for it later.

    We live in a subdivision on acreage and had neighbors that lived in their pole garage for a couple of years while they saved up to build a home. Other neighbors were up in arms: They can’t do that! They can’t live in their garage! They need to get a loan like the rest of us and build their home RIGHT NOW! These people were hounded left and right until they bugged out and moved away. It still makes me angry to this day . . .

  3. Nice article, and nice comment #1.

    I couldn’t agree more.

    And I disagree with “some” people who say that we couldn’t afford houses if there was no debt. If there was no debt, then houses would be alot cheaper, and more people could afford them with savings. Maybe not at 18 or 22, but by 30 or so.

    As a matter of fact, it’s been pretty obvious in the past couple of years how the availability and price of credit affects real estate prices, both up and down.

    I enjoyed this post!

  4. Oh, and moneyvator #1, I just ordered “Walden and Civil Disobedience” from Amazon, used of course, for $1.59 ( $4 S&H). I don’t know how in 16 years of school the cirriculum skipped that one, it looks great.


  5. I’m not sure if we’d be worse off. If we hadn’t done anything maybe it would cause all of us to take a look around and examine our life style. How much stuff do we really need anyway?

  6. “Others will point out that without debt, few of us could afford to be in a home.”

    I want to head this one off. It’s well-proven that the more readily available credit for a particular item, the higher its prices go, since more people feel they can afford it. This is true not only housing, but in education, where costs have risen much faster than inflation — to the point where I think we will begin to see a wholesale movement to cheaper colleges and online education.

    So what would happen if the government said tomorrow, “Alright, we won’t fund any more mortgages, period” and the banks also agreed to this “mortgage moratorium”? There would be a painful period of adjustment. Prices would probably drop another 30%. The bottom would absolutely fall out of higher-end houses; they might drop by 70% or more. (Suddenly, a $1 million house doesn’t look so appealing when you actually have to come up with $1 million on the spot!)

    But I can’t argue that our society would necessarily be worse off without easy mortgage debt. Sure, fewer of us would own homes, and those who did own would purchase later on in their lives. However, we forget this was commonplace just a few generations ago! And was anything really *wrong* with that? No, I don’t think you would find that we are happier now that we have an “ownership society.”

    I’d like to see this pendulum shift back in the direction of actual down payments being required. The low end of the market *still* doesn’t require a real down payment; you can get a FHA loan with only 3% down! But really, if more people rented, especially younger folks, it wouldn’t be a raw deal. It might also be a boon to other forms of investing which return, on average, far better than real estate.


  7. Jason, as usual a very thought-provoking post. Like most people, I don’t know the answer. I’m not even sure that the people who engineered the bailouts really know the answer either.

    I do believe that debt and peoples’ desire for more has helped grow the economy to where it is today, but is that sustainable? Can any population continue to have everything they want no matter the cost? I for one am no longer willing to support the economy through my personal debt. Every day, I see ways in which my life would be better without it. Every day I look for ways to live within my means.

    As I’m writing this, there’s a MasterCard commercial on the tv downstairs…

  8. Don’t have any answers either.

    But I don’t blame the availability of credit so much as the prevalence of greed as a driving force in most, if not all, industries and businesses today. And the root of many of our financial problems. Sorry, personal spending in unhealthy ways should be no surprise in a society where some people are so over-compensated and others so inadequately compensated that you begin to understand how the frustration fuels poor choices. The average citizen in debt takes a pounding even if he accrued it for legit reasons (healthcare!) but the A-H running companies who steals from customers and other empolyees. Well, he just gets richer (All those folks who ran companies into the ground, so that millions lost jobs? Not only should they have been fired, they should have been forced to pay others for their stupidity and greed. They are thieves as much as the folks at Enron or Madoff. They “stole” people’s lives and well-being and futures.)

    (I won’t even comment on unnecessary overspending in the government. At least we’re not still funding those Fwhatever planes. Now, if we didn’t have all the war funding!)

    Greed is at the heart of over-pricing/over-charging on all levels, whether it’s bankers awarding bonuses to staff at companies that are only still around because we, the people, funded a bailout. Still fuming over this. Rank and file get screwed left and right and are out of jobs forever and greedy bastards at companies laugh their asses off as they cash in/out for performance that would get us plain folks fired.)

    Same thing with housing. Ridiculous prices for years again due to people buying/selling as investments, not as making a place to live and creating a community.

    Profit is good and healthy but there is such a thing as too much, when it’s at the expense of others.

    It isn’t just the credit cards (banks) that are raking it in at the expense of the society.

    Debt, credit, etc. are not inherently bad. It’s about how they are misused, abused, etc. And how people are literally set up to fail.

    And the exorbitant cost of things, even basics, is making it impossible for the average person to have even a basic quality of life.

    I’m old enough to remember when healthcare insurance was readily available and affordable and getting medical care did not require going into debt (Medical care is the biggest cause of a lot of credit card debt.) When you worked and could survive.

    Given the nature of society today, and the rampant consumerism, at all socio-economic levels (it isn’t just the wealthy or middle class), it’s next to impossible to be self-reliant beyond a point.

    Fact is, we’re all interdependent, so we need to rein in the greedy and out only for themselves at the expense of others. That includes our so-called government (and I agree, both parties are guilty of plenty of bad judgment calls. It’s always been that way.)

    We need a real moral shift to real accountability, but when our government keeps funding the thieves, that’s not likely to happen.

    I’m afraid your post just reminded me of all that is wrong in our current society, government, that can’t be changed until more people literally rise up and say: We’re mad as hell and we’re not taking it anymore.

    Seriously, we need a true revolt in this country because our government no longer serves the needs of the average citizen. It’s still all about big business, who could care less about the citizens. It only wants their money.

    Greed. Greed. Greed. Self-interest. Whether doctor, banker or real estate agent. It only takes a relative few people in a society to make it hell for all the rest of us. That’s what we’re seeing now.

    I’m tired of seeing hardworking people struggling while fools, thieves and worse take the money and run.

    The one good thing about what’s happening now is that a lot more people are beginning to literally feel the pain of having less and doing with less, that most of the rest of us always knew (as a friend put it, hell, we’ve always lived frugally. We never had a choice. This is not new.) and maybe, just maybe, might think twice about how they conduct business. But unlikely. Those who care only about themselves, well, they still will.

    And the world will continue to rely on those individuals and some organizations, nonprofit, who try to help where they can. Alas, they have run out of money and resources, too.

    By the way, life in the past? Not so easy, and that self-reliance came at a huge cost.

    You need a degree of basic comfort so you can create, contribute and grow a society. That doesn’t happen when we’re all in fear of being out on the street at any time. Which is now the case for millions who never ever thought it “could happen to them.” There are no safety nets anymore. Period.

  9. The only thing I’d say – to Erica – is that there could be something wrong with most of us not owning our own homes. In that case we’d have a few landlords and a lot of tenants. This could potentially lead to exploitation. Like a town being owned by one landlord who basically runs the whole place by virtue of her owning everything there. I suppose that’s part of the concern.

  10. I think mortgages do allow most of us to own homes. “Back in the day”, the few people who owned land and/or a house inherited it. My great grandparents were very frugal, but the only reason they could buy their first house when they were in their forties is because a sister died and left some money. No, not everyone needs such extravagant houses but neither is a return to tenement slums such a great idea.

  11. I watched the Sidney Lumet movie ‘Network’ last night and it led me to think about the nature of our society, how capitalism plays in with all of it, and most importantly how artificial demand for goods play into it. I like choice when it comes to purchases, but advertising and marketing have drove us beyond the point of people discovering they have a need and then looking for a way to fulfill it. advertising now tells us what we need.

    an example: before drug companies were allowed to advertise medicine on TV, how many people in this country do you think had restless leg syndrome? one day your are watching TV because it is raining outside and you are restless and bored and the next thing you know you gotta go to the doctor to get a pill because you noticed your legs wouldn’t sit still because you are going stir crazy…must be restless leg syndrome.

    Housing has been the same way. I have never bought a house before,but I have felt the urge to with the idea that “real americans own homes.” and Bill Clinton was nice enough to have given me the choice of committing what would have been financial suicide…good thing I thought twice, unlike so many others. And the governemnt doesnt learn. just the other day i saw Barney frank talking about how we need to ease credit requirements to get people buying houses again…these people are insane.

  12. I think this is a little off-topic from your main point, but I’ll mention it anyway…

    You talked about self-reliance in your post, and I’m just wondering if you have read Richard Proenneke’s book “One Man’s Wilderness.” There’s a documentary, too (“Alone in the Wilderness”). It’s fascinating! I am amazed at how much he did on his own in Alaska. Talk about self-reliance! If you and your kids haven’t seen it, consider renting it. I think you’d enjoy it.

  13. Self reliance is a noble goal but not necessarily the most efficient. Let’s take a step back to macroeconomic theory here and remember that society as a whole does better with specialization.

    I can’t grow food as efficiently as a farmer. I use my job to create income to pay the farmer for his food.

    I can’t produce electricity or clean running water as efficiently as the utilities. I use my income to pay the utilities for their services.

    I don’t have enough money laying around to purchase a home outright, so I trade a future portion of my income stream to a bank for capital now to purchase a real asset.

    If we all tried to do everything on our own as a whole we would all be less efficient. Use loans as access to capital as a tool (like we use money to purchase food) and use it wisely. Just be sure you never allocate all of your income stream to expenditures.

  14. I paid cash for my little home, then paid cash for the addition. I was told when I bought it that any SANE person would have the fire dept come and burn it down and start over…. but, I found that wasteful, and I saw the potential that a LOT of hard work would expose… But it was a TINY 400 sq ft house with a mudroom porch leaning to one side. Who, besides me, wanted to put in the elbow grease to make it a home??? Not too many people would invest their elbow grease and patience and living in a construction zone for two years to come out with a nice 1035 sq ft 2 bedroom 1.5 bath home with a beautiful open floor plan and lots of natural light.

    That’s the issue…. too many people want the instant glamour of a new fancy home instead of the lower cost, but work involved, home. Too many people want are afraid to work for what they want and pay cash in the deal, instead of going for the “Easy” way out of getting credit and a big mortgage on more than they can afford.

    Used to be a family could be raised in a really small home – but today people look at them like they are cruel and unusual…. Why did that happen??? When did things go from being “Enough” and “Making Do”, to having to have it ALL right NOW! That’s the greed, and that’s the problem!

    In the meantime, I teach the grandkids,(by example) as I taught their parents, to do for themselves, to make do, to use it up, to not be wasteful, to be frugal, to grow a little garden, to can, sew, dehydrate, to pressure cook down the bones after butchering, to save the broth for stews, and to make scrapple with the trimmings and broth…. As my kids say, and my Grandkids are learning, we use everything except the squeal 🙂

  15. PS – RE: FOXFIRE books….mine vintage set are one owner books (mine) that I still have, in a place of honor, from the 1970’s. I refer to them often. One is even a signed copy from 1972. GREAT reference books!!! And while my “how to cure a hog” recipes are a bit different (mine is…start with a salty enough brine to float an egg…), I do use some of their recipes also 🙂