Friday, December 2, 2011


When looking at what appears to be a trend towards DIY (do it yourself), I see a correlation with the trends towards organic or small, self-sufficient farming and farmers markets. It is also, perhaps, related to this trend, but that’s a topic for another day. Understand this is all my own thoughts, and I haven’t done any research directly into this topic. This is simply my observation filtered through the economics of human action.

People want to get back to the basics, the simpler things, back to the land, closer to what they eat, etc. Many who take this view in small farming seem to channel it into anti-factory farming, anti-big business (i.e. Food, Inc.- my thoughts on that are here). But they don’t realize (at least I hope they don’t) the reasons we have large factory farms. Division of labor caused farms to develop from self-sufficient plots where the farmer made everything to more specialized, more efficient, factory type farms where the farmers can produce so much more of the final product (and specialization is such that we tend to specialize in what we’re good at producing). If we were all still producing all or most of the food necessary for our own families to live, there would be fewer economic and scientific advances, fewer finer things in life, less time for hobbies and recreation, even social time. The greater efficiency of the factory translates well to farming, so that our standard of living has increased dramatically, and many more people are fed. If someone chooses to produce as much of their own food as possible on their own farm, that is completely fine. But they are doing that because they choose that supposedly simpler life over anything else. They do it (hopefully) realizing that it does take more time and energy, and they won’t get ahead that way. If people go to farmers markets, they should go expecting to pay more money for the goods there.

I think the DIY trend is part of the desire to be self-sufficient and go back to a “simpler life.” As with self-sufficient farming, one must realize that DIY may not be the least expensive route. It can be fun or provide a sense of accomplishment and pride in a job well done, but then you are choosing to do it for those reasons. There are people who specialize in all of these goods and services (even perhaps those on Etsy), and they have done so for a reason. They are probably the more efficient or least opportunity cost producer of that good. As my economics students could tell you, they have comparative advantage in that particular line of production. If we choose to DIY, it must be with the realization that the costs may be higher than we realize. This includes not only time (probably more than an efficient professional) and materials (not bought in bulk, as a specialized producer might), but also the value of what we could have been doing with the time and energy we invested in making whatever item (called opportunity cost). If everything was DIY we would be back to those small self-sufficient farms, working from dawn to dusk to feed a family.

That being said, there is absolutely nothing wrong with choosing to DIY. I attempted canning for the first time this summer. Yes, I could have purchased canned peaches, but it was something new to try. It was a fun experience and there is a certain sense of accomplishment when you do something like that for yourself. However I recognized that I was doing it because I chose to do so. My personal preferences at the time were such that I ranked leaning over a hot stove to can peaches and apples, with the resulting feeling of accomplishment, over the next highest ranked use of my time. But that’s the great thing about preferences- they are personal and they don’t have to “make sense” to everyone (provided, of course, that they are morally equal). We must just realize that we are doing the task because we choose the enjoyment the process gives us, the satisfaction of a job well-done, and/or the quality of the finished product over what someone else could have done.

We must also be careful not to compare ourselves to others, whether in our craftiness or in our decisions about where to shop. We have to be careful that we’re not doing these projects simply because our friends do. We must avoid the trap of unconsciously looking down on others who aren’t as creatively inclined or skilled, or simply don’t choose to use their time in that particular way. There may very well be projects that are more efficient or cheaper when we do them ourselves instead of paying someone else to do them. But this must depend on each individual, their resources and skills. No project or decision has the same costs or benefits for everyone. We are created with individual skill-sets and preferences, so what is a good DIY for you may be a terrible project for me!

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