What is Autarky?

Autarky refers to a nation that operates in a state of self-reliance. Nations that follow a policy of autarky are characterized by self-sufficiency and limited trade with global partners. The definition of autarky comes from the Greek—autos, meaning "self" and arkein, meaning "to ward off" and "to be strong enough, to suffice." A fully autarkic nation would be a closed economy and lacking any sources of external support, trade or aid. In practice, however, no modern nation has achieved this level of autarky, even when subjected to punishing sanctions. This is because the global supply chain has made true economic isolation difficult, so any policy of autarky is a matter of degrees rather than a complete isolation.

Understanding Autarky

Autarky can be thought of as an extreme form of economic nationalism and protectionism. The motivation behind a policy of autarky is usually a combination of securing the supply of important goods and a desire to reduce the dependence on other nations in general. Depending on the type of political structure in a nation, the goal of reducing dependence on outside nations may be related to reducing the influence of competing political and economic systems. At various points in history, however, autarky has been proposed by groups all across the political spectrum. When framed in terms of keeping domestic spending at home or stopping the transfer of wealth to bad political actors, autarky touches populist themes and appears to make practical sense.

Key Takeaways

  • Autarky refers to the state of self-sufficiency and is typically used to describe nations or economies that have the goal of reducing their dependence on international trade.
  • There are no fully-autarkic nations in the modern world, as even the most isolated have some level of participation in international trade and receive outside support or aid.
  • North Korea and Nazi Germany are two examples of nations that have pursued a policy of autarky.
  • The justification for autarky often draws on populist arguments of keeping money at home and out of the hands of politically unfriendly nations.

In practice, however, autarky has economic downsides that are not immediately apparent in the populist arguments. Autarky was first questioned by economist Adam Smith, and then David Ricardo. Smith suggested that countries should engage in free trade and specialize in goods they have an absolute advantage in producing, in order to generate more wealth. This is one of the core arguments Smith made in favor of free trade in The Wealth of Nations. Ricardo amended this argument slightly, saying that countries should also produce goods in which they have a comparative advantage. By leveraging comparative advantages, countries are able to work together to create more wealth in the global system of trade.

Put another way, opting out of global trade in favor of doing it all domestically has a high opportunity cost for nations, just as it does for individuals. For example, a family preoccupied with sewing their own clothes, building their own furniture, and growing their own food will necessarily have less time to work outside the home for wages. This will likely result in less income for the household and less workers for nearby employers - and, ultimately, a smaller economy due to the high degree of self-sufficiency being practiced. This is true on a global scale as well.

Real World Examples of Autarky

Historically, autarkic policies have been deployed to different extents. Western European countries deployed them under mercantilist policies from the 16th to the 18th century. This spurred economists like Smith, Ricardo, and Frederic Bastiat to refine free-market and free-trade philosophies as counter arguments.

Nazi Germany also implemented a form or autarky to ensure the strategic supply needed for its war efforts. Today, North Korea stands as the main example of a policy of autarky. North Korea's economic isolation is a mixture of intentional self-reliance to reduce international political influence and imposed self-reliance due to being cut out of international trade through sanctions.

One of the most extreme examples of contemporary autarky is North Korea, which relies on the concept of juche, often translated as "self-reliance."

Autarky and the Autarkic Price

A related term, autarky price or autarkic price, refers to the cost of a good in an autarkic state. The cost of producing in a closed economy must be covered by the price charged for the good. If the cost is higher relative to other nations, then the autarky price is a dead loss for that national economy. The autarkic price is sometimes used as an economic variable when roughly calculating where a nation's comparative advantages are. In practice, however, comparative advantages are discovered through market mechanisms rather than an economic model.