Autarky Definition and Examples

Autarky: Definition, Examples, Pros & Cons

Autarky definition

What is Autarky?

In a world where globalization has become the norm, the concept of autarky, or economic self-sufficiency, stands out as a contrasting idea. Autarky is an economic system in which a country aims to achieve complete self-reliance by minimizing its reliance on international trade and producing all of its essential goods and services domestically. This pursuit of self-sufficiency has had a varied history, with some nations adopting it as a central policy while others eschewing it in favor of more open trade relations.

While autarky has its roots in ancient economies and the mercantilist theories of the 16th to 18th centuries, it remains a relevant topic in modern economic debates, as some nations still strive for varying degrees of self-sufficiency. This article will explore the concept of autarky, its theoretical foundations, advantages, and disadvantages, as well as real-world examples and its role in contemporary economic discussions. By examining the pursuit of economic self-sufficiency, we can better understand the complex interplay between globalization and national economic policies.

Key Points
  1. Autarky is a self-sufficient economic state in which a country or region does not engage in international trade.
  2. The main benefit of autarky is self-sufficiency, which can provide a sense of security and stability.
  3. The drawbacks of autarky include higher costs of production, limited access to foreign goods and services, and a lack of competition.
  4. Few countries have attempted full autarky, as it can be difficult to achieve complete self-sufficiency in a globalized world.

Foundations of Autarky

Autarky as an economic concept has its roots in various historical and theoretical contexts. Some of the key ideas and influences that have shaped the notion of autarky are as follows:

  1. Mercantilism: Mercantilist theories, which were dominant between the 16th and 18th centuries, emphasized the importance of maintaining a favorable balance of trade and accumulating wealth in the form of gold and silver. Mercantilist nations sought to achieve this by promoting exports and limiting imports, which led to a desire for self-sufficiency in some cases. While mercantilism is no longer the prevailing economic theory, the idea of pursuing self-sufficiency as a means to protect a nation’s wealth and resources has persisted in various forms.
  2. Economic Nationalism: Economic nationalism, which promotes the primacy of national interests in economic policy, has often been associated with autarkic policies. By minimizing reliance on international trade and prioritizing domestic production, economic nationalists believe that a nation can protect its industries, create jobs, and maintain a level of economic independence from other countries.
  3. Protectionism: Autarky is sometimes seen as an extreme form of protectionism, where a country seeks to shield its domestic industries from foreign competition by imposing tariffs, quotas, or other trade barriers. While protectionism generally involves selective restrictions on imports, autarky seeks to eliminate them entirely or reduce them to an absolute minimum.
  4. Self-Sufficiency as a Strategic Goal: In some cases, the pursuit of autarky has been driven by strategic considerations, such as the desire to maintain national security or achieve economic independence in the face of geopolitical threats. By producing all essential goods domestically, a nation can reduce its vulnerability to external shocks, such as supply chain disruptions or trade disputes.

Understanding the theoretical underpinnings of autarky helps illuminate the motivations and goals behind this economic system, as well as the challenges and trade-offs it presents.

Advantages of Autarky

While autarky is often criticized for its potential negative impacts on economic growth and efficiency, there are several advantages that proponents of this economic system argue for. Some of these advantages include:

1. Economic Independence

Autarky can provide a country with a high degree of economic independence, reducing its reliance on other nations for essential goods and services. This can make the country less vulnerable to external economic shocks or political disputes that could disrupt trade and harm its economy.

2. National Security

A self-sufficient economy may be better prepared to withstand geopolitical threats, as it does not rely on other nations for strategic resources, such as food, energy, or military equipment. This can make the country more resilient in times of conflict or crisis.

3. Protection of Domestic Industries

Autarkic policies can help protect domestic industries from foreign competition, allowing them to grow and develop without facing the pressure of competing with more established or efficient international businesses. This can foster domestic innovation and job creation, as well as help maintain a diverse economic base.

4. Control over Natural Resources

Autarky allows a country to retain control over its natural resources, ensuring that they are used for the benefit of its citizens rather than being exported for the profit of foreign companies. This can help preserve a nation’s resources and promote sustainable development.

5. Social and Cultural Benefits

By promoting self-sufficiency and national identity, autarky can help strengthen social cohesion and cultural identity. This can foster a sense of pride and unity among citizens, as well as support the preservation of cultural traditions and values.

Despite these potential benefits, autarky also presents significant challenges and drawbacks, which must be weighed against its advantages when evaluating its merits as an economic system.

Disadvantages of Autarky

Although there are some potential advantages to autarky, there are also several significant disadvantages that critics of this economic system point to. Some of these disadvantages include:

1. Economic Inefficiency

Autarky can lead to economic inefficiency, as it prevents countries from specializing in the production of goods and services for which they have a comparative advantage. This means that resources may not be allocated in the most productive way, resulting in lower overall economic output and living standards.

2. Higher Consumer Prices

Protectionist policies, such as tariffs and import quotas, can result in higher prices for consumers, as domestic producers face less competition and may not have the same incentives to reduce costs and improve efficiency. This can lead to a lower standard of living for citizens, as their purchasing power is reduced.

3. Limited Access to New Technologies and Ideas

Autarky can limit a country’s exposure to new technologies, ideas, and innovations from other parts of the world. This can hinder economic growth and development, as the country may miss out on opportunities to adopt more advanced methods of production or to tap into global knowledge networks.

4. Negative Effects on Global Trade

Autarkic policies can have negative consequences for the global economy, as they can lead to trade imbalances, retaliatory protectionism, and reduced international cooperation. This can exacerbate global economic crises and undermine the benefits of international trade and globalization.

5. Reduced Investment

Foreign investors may be less inclined to invest in an autarkic economy due to concerns about trade barriers, political instability, and reduced access to global markets. This can limit a country’s access to capital and hinder economic growth and development.

Overall, the disadvantages of autarky can outweigh its potential benefits, leading many economists and policymakers to advocate for more open and interconnected economies that can take advantage of the gains from international trade and cooperation.

Real-World Examples of Autarky

While pure autarky is rare in today’s interconnected global economy, there have been instances where countries have pursued autarkic policies to varying degrees. Some notable examples include:

  1. Albania (1944-1991): Under the communist regime of Enver Hoxha, Albania pursued a policy of self-reliance and economic isolation. The country severed ties with both the Soviet Union and China, aiming to develop its economy independently. However, this strategy led to stagnation, limited technological advancement, and a decline in living standards.
  2. North Korea: North Korea, under the leadership of the Kim dynasty, has pursued a policy of “Juche” or self-reliance. The country is one of the most isolated in the world, with strict controls on imports and exports, limited foreign investment, and minimal international trade. This has resulted in chronic food shortages, a stagnant economy, and widespread poverty.
  3. Nazi Germany (1933-1945): Adolf Hitler’s regime pursued a policy of economic self-sufficiency known as “autarky” in preparation for war. The government implemented protectionist measures, promoted domestic industries, and sought to reduce dependence on foreign resources. However, this strategy was unsustainable in the long run, as the country’s resource demands outstripped its domestic capacity during World War II.
  4. British Empire (17th-20th centuries): The British Empire implemented a system of mercantilism that aimed to achieve economic self-sufficiency within its territories. This involved the establishment of colonies, the protection of domestic industries, and the promotion of exports over imports. While this strategy allowed Britain to amass wealth and power, it also led to economic inefficiencies and contributed to growing tensions with its colonies.

These examples demonstrate the challenges and limitations of pursuing autarky as an economic strategy. In each case, the pursuit of self-sufficiency and isolation led to economic stagnation, inefficiencies, and reduced living standards for the population.

The Role of Autarky in Modern Economic Debates

In contemporary economic debates, the concept of autarky plays a vital role in discussions surrounding protectionism, globalization, and self-sufficiency. Advocates and critics of autarky argue over its merits and drawbacks, often using historical examples to support their positions. Key areas of debate include:

  1. Protectionism vs. Free Trade: Advocates of autarky argue that protectionist measures can shield domestic industries from foreign competition, promote self-sufficiency, and protect national security. Critics, on the other hand, contend that protectionism leads to inefficiencies, hampers innovation, and ultimately harms consumers through higher prices and reduced choices.
  2. Globalization and Interdependence: Proponents of globalization argue that increased economic integration and interdependence lead to increased prosperity, economic growth, and improved living standards. Critics of globalization, however, often point to the risks of overreliance on international trade and the potential for economic shocks to spread across borders. They argue that a degree of self-sufficiency can protect countries from global economic instability.
  3. Sustainability and Resource Security: Some environmentalists and proponents of sustainable development argue that a degree of autarky can help countries become more self-sufficient in terms of resources, thereby promoting long-term sustainability and reducing dependence on finite resources. Critics counter that this approach could limit the adoption of innovative technologies and hinder the global exchange of ideas and knowledge that can drive sustainable development.
  4. Economic Sovereignty and Political Independence: Advocates of autarky argue that self-sufficiency can strengthen a nation’s economic sovereignty and political independence, reducing its vulnerability to external pressures and influence. Critics, however, contend that autarky can exacerbate political isolation and hinder international cooperation on global challenges such as climate change, terrorism, and pandemics.

These debates illustrate the complex and multifaceted nature of the role of autarky in modern economic discussions. While the pursuit of complete self-sufficiency is widely considered impractical and undesirable, the degree to which countries should prioritize self-reliance and protectionism remains a subject of ongoing debate.


The concept of autarky, or economic self-sufficiency, has long been a subject of debate among economists and policymakers. While complete autarky is generally seen as an impractical and undesirable goal, there are valid arguments on both sides regarding the advantages and disadvantages of pursuing a degree of self-sufficiency in specific sectors or under particular circumstances.

Advocates of autarky emphasize the potential benefits of protectionism, resource security, and economic sovereignty, while critics highlight the risks of inefficiencies, reduced innovation, and hindered international cooperation. Real-world examples of autarky, both historical and contemporary, provide valuable insights into the potential outcomes and consequences of pursuing self-sufficiency.

Ultimately, the role of autarky in modern economic debates will continue to evolve as nations grapple with the challenges and opportunities presented by globalization, technological advancements, and shifting geopolitical landscapes. Policymakers must carefully weigh the potential benefits and drawbacks of autarky in order to strike a balance that promotes economic growth, stability, and long-term sustainability.


What is autarky?

Autarky is a self-sufficient economic state in which a country or region does not engage in international trade.

What are the benefits of autarky?

The main benefit of autarky is self-sufficiency, as the country or region is not reliant on foreign sources of goods or services. This can provide a sense of security and stability, especially during times of economic or political upheaval.

What are the drawbacks of autarky?

The drawbacks of autarky include higher costs of production, limited access to foreign goods and services, and a lack of competition, which can stifle innovation and limit consumer choice.

Are there any examples of autarky in practice?

Few countries have attempted full autarky, as it can be difficult to achieve complete self-sufficiency in a globalized world. However, some historical examples include North Korea and Albania during their periods of isolationist policies.

About Paul

Paul Boyce is an economics editor with over 10 years experience in the industry. Currently working as a consultant within the financial services sector, Paul is the CEO and chief editor of BoyceWire. He has written publications for FEE, the Mises Institute, and many others.

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