Robinson Crusoe’s skills: Because of the virus, some autarky vis-à-vis the external world is inevitable

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May 14, 2020 5:10 AM

But Robinson Crusoe and The Swiss Family Robinson (published 1812) are also a metaphor for something else, that of self-reliance, which is why economists coined the expression, Robinson Crusoe economy.

But growth, productivity and employment are about society’s economic goals, not morality. But growth, productivity and employment are about society’s economic goals, not morality.

Images have surfaced of celebrities cutting the hair of their near and dear ones. This is also a metaphor for lockdown. Some have opted not to snip their locks and describe themselves as sporting hair like Robinson Crusoe’s. The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719, doesn’t tell us what Robinson Crusoe’s hair looked like, unlike Man Friday’s. But, it stands to reason it must have been long, which is the reason Carol Frost wrote a poem titled, Robinson Crusoe’s Hair. “He could feel the hair multiply, and it came in silvered and very curly, almost as the hair of coconuts”. For Covid-19, we might find reading Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (published 1722) more engaging. For instance, “We had no such thing as printed newspapers in those days to spread rumours and reports of things, and to improve them by the invention of men, as I have lived to see practised since”. Or, “This hurry, I say, continued some weeks, that is to say, all the month of May and June, and the more because it was rumoured that an order of the Government was to be issued out to place turnpikes and barriers on the road to prevent people travelling, and that the towns on the road would not suffer people from London to pass for fear of bringing the infection along with them”. Various versions of lockdown find a resonance.

But Robinson Crusoe and The Swiss Family Robinson (published 1812) are also a metaphor for something else, that of self-reliance, which is why economists coined the expression, Robinson Crusoe economy. Force of circumstance might have forced Robinson Crusoe to make a chair and table and sundry objects. For Johann David Wyss, self-reliance was a conscious motif-making of candles, apiculture, animal husbandry, fishing and so on. Most of us don’t want to be marooned on a deserted island. Sooner or later, we crave civilisation and wish to be rescued by a passing ship in the night. (All the Robinsons didn’t leave on that ship). Doubling up as a barber, or being shipwrecked, are romantic interludes. Once calamity has passed, how many people would want to remain as part-time barbers? If they wanted to, would that be efficient and contribute to overall welfare, even if they were fairly skilled as barbers? Romanticism, protectionism and mercantilism notwithstanding, self-reliance is not a sensible idea. For some, it may be a moral ideal, as individuals. But growth, productivity and employment are about society’s economic goals, not morality. Thanks to Adam Smith and David Ricardo, we have imbibed lessons of specialisation and comparative advantage, or think we have.

Of course, in Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith didn’t mention barbers. His focus was manufacture, not services. The celebrated example was of that of nails. “A common smith, who, though accustomed to handle the hammer, has never been used to make nails, if upon some particular occasion he is obliged to attempt it, will scarce, I am assured, be able to make above two or three hundred nails in a day, and those too very bad ones. A smith who has been accustomed to make nails, but whose sole or principal business has not been that of a nailer, can seldom with his utmost diligence make more than eight hundred or a thousand nails in a day”. If you are not even a common smith, how many nails will you produce a day? David Ricardo mentioned neither barbers nor nails. His focus was also primary and secondary sectors, not the tertiary.

Splicing Census 2011, NSSO and Economic Survey, we have a rough handle on the number of internal migrants. The focus of discourse is usually inter-state, with sources in UP, Bihar, MP, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand. J&K and West Bengal, headed for destinations in Delhi, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. With intra-state added to inter-state, a ballpark figure is 140 million, or thereabouts. Not all migrants work, but a significant number do. Everyone possesses skills. Use of expressions like unskilled or semi-skilled means those skills aren’t valued sufficiently highly by the market. But regardless, those migrants possess absolute, and certainly comparative advantage, in some occupations. Supplanting migrants, even if that were possible, leads to efficiency losses. Often, migrants were in unorganised sectors. When in the organised sector, they lacked formal contracts. In a segmented labour market, reforms are about reducing rigidity in the organised but also about enhanced and enforced protection in the unorganised. The two should converge.

Because of the virulent virus, some degree of autarky vis-à-vis the external world is inevitable. Those borders don’t disappear. However, within the country, growth gains have been about integration, not just in product markets but also in factor markets. Factor markets primarily mean land and labour. There has been a discussion about getting migrants safely back to home-states. The focus of discussion should now shift to getting migrants safely back to destination states. Some may never return, at least immediately.

If migrants don’t return, much of manufacturing will collapse. Many urban services will collapse. It is all very well to cut your hair once, but try some plumbing work. Try making a chair or table. Try building your house. In the late 18th and early 19th century, people probably possessed a broader set of skills. Specialisation was less. Today, few of us are like Alexander Selkirk. We won’t survive. We need that rescuing ship.

The author is Chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the PM
Views are personal

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