In Defense of Retreats


Over 12 years ago Barbie and I decided this country was headed for trouble that might well result in a complete breakdown of its economic, political, and social structure. Since that time we've seen little to change our minds. Hard coinage has been replaced in general circulation by near-worthless sandwich tokens; the state's "reserve notes" are no longer redeemable in anything but more paper; product prices have doubled or even tripled while the quality of workmanship has steadily declined; deficit spending, public and private, has mushroomed, as has the probability of falling victim to property theft or personal violence.

Added to all that, we have become increasingly concerned with the vulnerability of domestic and international food supplies, global population trends and their consequences, environmental decay, and the depletion of those fossil fuels on which world industry and transportation have become so dependent. Finally, we are aware of the threat presented by the growing number of countries in the "nuclear club" and the possibility of being caught in the midst of an exchange of force between its numbers.

The uncertainties posed by such trends and hazards justified some action to gain more control of our lives and provide insulation against the irrational actions of others, be they bureaucrats or hungry looters. We considered or become briefly involved with the various approaches that others were touting, from political and educational promotion of libertarian concepts to the establishment of new countries based upon them.

But none of these gave us the sense of personal control and the freedom we sought—they all depended for success on the like-minded cooperation or conversion of a multitude of others. We concluded that we could much more profitably invest our time in seeking immediately rewarding interstices in the existing society, imperfect though it is, while insuring against the uncertainties of the future by establishing a remote, self-sufficient haven to which we could repair should conditions in populated areas become too hazardous. Hence, we started preparing our retreat.

It was not our original intent to make retreating a business; we were only in it for our own peace of mind. But the word soon got around, and before long others who had arrived at similar conclusions were seeking our advice in the preparation of their havens. We recognized a developing market, and 12 years later we're devoting full time to retreat.

We didn't anticipate the negative propaganda and mythology that would be generated against retreating, for whatever reasons, by some of those freedom-seekers who choose not to include it in their defense against an uncertain future. The very mention of retreating elicits emotional and unreasoned responses from a number of leading "libertarian activists" For an example of the kind of illogical and unknowledgeable arguments leveled against those so selfish or stupid as to prepare a retreat, look up Murray Rothbard's article, "Save Yourself by Saving Freedom" in the June 1975 issue of REASON (page references are to this article). This piece is typical of a number of his diatribes against those who don't devote their "hearts and minds" fully "to the great and noble cause of advancing liberty" through political activism (p. 62). Interestingly, my dictionary defines activism as "a doctrine or practice that emphasizes vigorous action such as the use of force for political ends." That would seem to make activism and libertarianism as much at odds as theft and morality! Anyway, we should be more than a little wary of those who solicit support of any "great and noble cause." Much better an appeal to rational self-interest than to any cause, with its implication of a "higher" purpose!

Rothbard is not alone, of course, in propagandizing against those acting individually to protect themselves from times of crisis. He's just one of the most vocal and visible because of the respect accorded him for his outstanding efforts in behalf of a view of historical events based on the Austrian school of economics. Indeed, there are many who have made efforts to dissuade others from making personal survival preparations—for a variety of reasons.

Retreating is not for everyone. Nor should I determine what is in your best interest. But it's too bad that individuals attempting to select their own courses have to fight through such a tangle of illogical and ill-conceived arguments. I'd like to analyze some of the most common rationalizations against personal preparation, and some of the suppositions of insurmountable problems with retreating, that are used in an attempt to steer potential deviants back into the activist fold. Then it's up to you to decide whether you personally would gain safety, peace of mind, a sense of efficacy, or recreation value from developing your potential for self-sufficiency. What good is decision without action?

Antiretreating Cliche #1: It's a cop-out. Even the word retreat suggests cowardice.

This is classic in its lack of reasoning, its use of loaded words, and its consequent appeal to emotion. It's like a bunch of children browbeating one who marches to a different drum by calling him "chicken" or demeaning him for failing to take up their dare. This is often a cover-up for the name-callers' personal lack of confidence in the course they have chosen.

Cliche #2: "You wouldn't want to go live in a cave and eat weeds, would you?"

Again, it's a propagandistic appeal, loaded and lacking reason. I've consulted with nearly 500 families over the years, talked with over 2,000 more at seminars and lectures, and received letters from several thousand others describing their retreat plans. Not a single one planned to live in a cave! Granted, there is one individual who intends to repair with his family and proper provisions to his gold and silver mine should conditions as he perceives them warrant it. But a gold mine is not your run-of-the-mill cave! Several others have constructed retreats underground for greater protection from temperature fluctuation, vandalism, and detection now or later (at least one is on so-called public land). But it would seem that these might better be called "burrows" than "caves."

Is a cabin nestled back into a south-facing hillside and overlooking a meadow valley crossed by a meandering stream and frequented by rabbits and deer any more a cave than four rooms on the fifth floor of a soot-covered New York City apartment building where the elevator only works part of the time, people are mugged on the stairs, you can always tell what your neighbors are doing, and the view out your window is of a garbage-strewn alley below, a brick wall opposite, and water tanks and air-handling equipment above? Yet many who have Oedipus complexes over "mother city" would look down their noses at that cabin in the woods.

As to "eating weeds," a weed is just a plant with no known use. Rest assured that if it's become table fare it's a useful plant and no longer a weed.

Cliche #3: You wouldn't be able to survive in a retreat today—"let alone prosper and flourish—without a large-scale market, mass production, and the division of labor" (p. 61).

This is an interesting one. Is the author talking about his readers' survival potential or his pessimistic view of his own? It sounds very much like "I need you for my survival." But does he really expect to be able to use his needs as a claim check to procure the conformity of other free men? If so, he's a strange sort of libertarian indeed!

But let's explore the contention itself. To begin with, the premise of retreating is to have a remote living space waiting, to be called upon when the area in which you now reside offers less safety and comfort than that established alternative. So each individual has to assess (1) the probability of current events leading to economic and social breakdown, violence, and looting in the area of present residency and (2) were those events to occur, whether standing firm to the last bullet in a populated area would offer more happiness and safety than living off goods put aside in a remote and defendable location.

A third weakness in this cliche is the presumption that people today are somehow inherently less capable of independent survival than they have been in the past. There have always been seekers of isolation and privacy, and many outlived their more gregarious fellows. The likes of Jeremiah Johnson, Henry Thoreau, Ralph Edwards (the "Crusoe of Lonesome Lake"), Sylvan Hart (the so-called last of the mountain men), and a host of others have found not just survival but also peace and happiness in relative solitude and isolation. They had learned the skills necessary for that kind of existence.

Survival potential in any situation is dependent on knowledge of the rules of getting by in that particular habitat. Mountain men who had mastered wilderness survival would be at a loss, until they learned the ropes, in any of our major cities; I can just see one ending up in the hoosegow for shooting pigeons in the public park with his squirrel gun—if the muggers didn't get him first! Ponder the difficulties of a non-New Yorker's first traverse of the city by railway, subway, and elevated bus. There's a lot to learn, but a lot of people do learn. So perhaps, what is really meant is that the speaker of the cliche doesn't have the skills or confidence for independent survival and doesn't want to expend the effort necessary to gain them. OK—that has no implications for others who do want to.

Finally, there is an assumption that retreating is necessarily a solitary venture and thus the end of division of labor. But when even two people plan a retreat together, there are undoubtedly chore preferences resulting in voluntary exchanges. In group retreats these can include very specialized talents. Most of the groups of any size that have sought my counsel include at least one doctor, a dentist, a veterinarian, a lawyer, and a teacher or two, as well as those skilled in construction, mechanics, electricity and plumbing, child care, gardening, hunting, forestry, and security. In many cases these skills were acquired or expanded after the individuals became retreat-oriented because they realized what they do now would be of little trade value at a laissez-faire retreat.

Cliche #4: Advance preparation is a waste of time and money; if your goods aren't destroyed by vandals now, you'll never be able to protect them from hoards of well-armed looters once you've retreated.

Indeed I have received a number of sad letters from retreaters who underestimated the risks of vandalism, much to their later regret. And certainly, in the event of social collapse, when there is little left to pillage in the more populated areas, surviving bands of looters will fan out into the countryside. But where does that leave the urbanite who has made no preparation? He's probably long-dead when the family in retreat begins putting its defense planning to the test.

Further, there are many ways of avoiding, defending against, or minimizing the risk of either vandalism now or looting later. These involve retreat approach, improvement schedule, site location and development, structure design and location, camouflage and concealment, warning and protective devices, and so on. This is one of the major concerns leading serious retreaters to seek consultation. I have yet to encounter an instance when I couldn't suggest a number of answers that fit the needs, abilities, and limitations of the client(s) involved. The disparager of retreating is in essence saying, "I don't know how to deal with the problems of vandalism and looting so there must not be any good answers." But we all know statists who say, "I don't see how we could have any roads or mail service if it were left to private enterprise so there must be no way to manage it except through government control."

Cliche #5: Collapse is most unlikely anyway; the government is too resilient and at worst we'll see a steady move toward collectivism. And then where will you retreaters be? Your gold and goods will be expropriated because "the State has more and better guns" (p. 60).

As with many unsound arguments, this one throws several things at the reader at once to detract from the need to support any of them. The way to counteract this is to deal with it piece by piece. First, the government may be resilient, but the principles it is violating are not. They are immutable relationships of cause and effect. The way Gresham's Law removed silver coinage from circulation a few years ago, despite the best efforts of our resilient government, is a good illustration of this.

As government generates more and more problems through its intrusions in the market, it increasingly has to take emergency steps to mollify the consequences—producing even greater distortions. We have reached the point where nearly all bureaucratic energy is expended on delaying actions to avert, postpone, or dilute the effects of its ever more frequent self-induced crises—bank failures, imbalances of payments, energy shortages, environmental upsets, reduction in productivity, unemployment increases, terrorism, ethnic militancy, loss of credibility, price booms, etc.—and each tactic used will bring on its own new crop of problems, like sowing dragon's teeth. In the end, I believe we are going to see that "resilient" governmental monster burst like an overinflated balloon. And when it does, a great many of the unprepared are going to be blown away by the force of its rupture.

"At worst we'll see a steady move toward collectivism. And then where will you retreaters be?" Thus does the dread of collectivism elicit insistence on banding together to use our collective political clout to influence the "outside" world in "the glorious task of the victory of the libertarian ideal" (p. 63). Most of us go through a phase of such arguments, but some never see the inconsistency of a collective fight against collectivism.

And where will retreaters be if the grand effort fails and collectivism takes the field? We'll be tucked away in our remote retreats, of course, living quietly off our preparations and maintaining a very low profile. Those who remain unprepared and in populated areas will surely be affected most by the regimentation and persecution of the "new order."

Judging by societies of this form already in existence, it is the mass of urban workers (slaves) and those in highly productive agricultural areas that are the first interest of the proletariat's leadership. What is the use of searching out a few scruffy loners who appear to be barely eking out a living for themselves on scattered clearings in the wilderness? Indeed, even in the Soviet countries today, such little bands of foragers and woodsmen persist, the last freemen in their regimented nations.

And there is precedent. When all of England was crushed beneath the heavy-taxing hands of Norman conquerors, the legendary Robin Hood and his band lived freely in the forest. They divested those made rich by taxes or fear-inspired donations to the church of a bit of their wealth and returned it to the victims of that taxation and religious intimidation, after extracting a reasonable commission for themselves. It can work again if need be! Any who would try to regiment America would find their hands full with a "Robin" or a "Little John" behind every tree (or perhaps a Ragnar Danneskjold beneath every wave). But would they come from among the ranks of those willing to sacrifice their personal safety and independence to work "collectively" for freedom? More likely they would be those who had prepared individually while they still had a chance. Does anyone know of a good submarine for sale cheap?

Cliche #6: Even if the holocaust does come, it "won't be that bad. The Germans survived the horrors of runaway inflation in the 1920's," and recovered to prosper again (p.61).

This generalization from a libertarian noted for his accomplishments in revisionist history! It's based on the old saw that history repeats itself. It doesn't. The patterns of history recur, due to consistencies in the nature of mankind, but always with variation, and often the variations can be greater than the parallels. That something hasn't happened in a particular way or degree is far from reasonable proof that it cannot happen in the future.

To compare Germany of 1923 with the United States of 1976 is like equating grasshoppers and elephants. Both are vegetarians with two eyes and more than two legs, but if you can't tell the difference between them you have no business strolling in the African bush. Germany of half a century ago was a small country surrounded by others with sounder economies and currencies and largely made up of small cities and towns supplied with food and other essentials from nearby rural areas, where two-thirds of the population lived. Even in urban areas a great many of the people had productive gardens. When the currency began to lose all value, money from the surrounding, more stable, economies flowed into Germany in exchange for personal goods.

Yet, in spite of these mollifying factors, many people lost all that they had accumulated over a lifetime; there were food riots; warehouses were ransacked, people trampled, and the food despoiled; and when farmers tried to protect the crops in their fields, some were beaten or even killed. Certainly most Germans survived—due to the briefness of the period before outside funds flowed in and order was restored—but at what cost?

By comparison, the United States today has over 4 times as many people, scattered over 24 times the area, with less than one-fourth of the population living outside urban areas. The other three-fourths are dependent on food, fuel, and other essentials brought to them by a complex transportation system powered by petroleum and lubricated by money. U.S. cities are estimated to have at any point in time less than three weeks' food on hand for their occupants.

Things are further complicated in this country by the fact that specialization has resulted in most people's not knowing how to personally provide for even their most basic needs. They obtain what they require through the use of money or force. If the money becomes useless, you know where that leaves us. Further, we have come to take product availability so much for granted that few today make any effort to put by even such essential commodities as food, water, and fuel for times of shortages. How long could you live on the food you have on hand? Do you think your neighbors are any better prepared?

Further, the U.S. dollar underpins most of the "free" world's economic systems. We couldn't realistically expect foreign currencies to quickly help reestablish exchange if there were a collapse. Canada is in worse shape than we are; Mexico doesn't have enough money to affect the situation significantly; and any new paper currency issued domestically would be a bit hard to push off on a population once burned.

Finally, there is a different attitude today even from the one that existed during the depression of the thirties. Most people then still prided themselves on their independence, and, though they were confused by what was going on and hated to take hand-outs, they stood in the soup lines and accepted what they got as a gift or went out and grew what they needed. Today more than half the population either works nonproductively for the government or lives off its dole, all the time feeling entitled to more. And when they don't get what they think is deserved they may get nasty. Remember the riots in major cities and the hijacking of the food trucks in the Hearst-kidnapping give-away. Will those who have been taught that the world owes them a living stand peacefully in breadlines this time around? No, I suspect that, compared to what lies ahead, what happened in Germany half a century ago will seem like a school picnic.

Cliche #7: Even if everybody wanted to retreat, there wouldn't be enough wilderness to do so; they'd be packed in like sardines.

This one is a real ringer. Only a very small percentage of the population of this country, at best, can be expected to act in advance for their own well-being. After all, the government will take care of everyone, won't it?

Cliche #8: This retreating business is just a passing fad, like the bomb shelters of the '60's.

In several ways that is far from true. First, the pressure to build family fallout shelters was exerted vertically downward, from the government to the people, in a temporary admission that it couldn't protect us from all eventualities. When the government stopped pushing shelters, people stopped building them. Retreating, on the other hand, is far from a government-backed program. It is a horizontal, grassroots movement arrived at by individuals and passed on from one to another. It's based on a real concern for what is happening and where it seems to be leading.

Second, unlike the shelter fad, which ran out of steam when the government changed its supportive policies, the motivation for retreat preparation will continue as long as our complex system of production, distribution, and exchange remains vulnerable. With the trend toward ever-greater intervention in the market, that looks to be an ongoing threat. Finally, even if never needed, a well-planned retreat will yield most of its benefits anyway. It can provide peace of mind, a place to get away from it all for temporary respites, recreation, a sense of efficacy and, a store of useful consumable goods to fall back on, even if there is never a general crisis requiring its use. Most retreaters would be quite happy if, by some miracle, their havens never would be used for anything other than family outings.

Cliche #9: Retreating isn't really the answer because it can't guarantee safety against looters, foreign invasion forces, nuclear war, or even forest fires.

It's true that retreating isn't an absolute assurance of safety under every conceivable condition, but, if well planned, it seems to come closer to providing the individual with control over his or her essential needs and security than any known alternative. There are no absolute guarantees in life, but that shouldn't be an excuse for failing to minimize the hazards.

Cliche #10: When you need it, you won't be able to reach your retreat anyway.

This one again mainly reflects ignorance. A person who has taken the time and effort to develop and implement a retreat plan is going to be so aware of and concerned about the events forewarning crisis that he or she will probably be too uncomfortable to remain in a high-risk area several months before the average zombie on the street dares admit something might be wrong. The person without an alternative has a vested interest in believing the reassurances of government; the properly prepared retreater doesn't. So there should be no hoards of panicky intellectual zeroes on the roads. Probably the only barrier for precrisis evacuees would be unavailability of fuel. And that can be handled by storing at home more than enough to make the entire trip and being equipped to take it along. Then if there weren't a gas station open in the entire country, the only effect would be to cut down on the traffic. Of course, it's important to store properly treated gasoline—it will become useless in less than a year without a fuel stabilizing additive such as the one distributed by SURVIVAL, INC. under the name "Gas Saver." If you're going to do it, do it right.

Cliche #11: If things get so bad that you have to retreat to be safe, it isn't worth the effort, since life won't be worth living after such a time of trauma.

This is just a rehash of an old anti-fallout-shelter argument. What conditions will or won't make life worth living for you? I would never voluntarily write it off. With the preparations I've made, I am confident that my family group will make it through with flying colors, and, if necessary, we'll start over from scratch on the other side. It could be quite an adventure and I expect to be in good company. Retreaters are, by and large, a bunch of delightfully independent, self-motivated, action-oriented, free spirits. A world peopled with more of that kind and less dependent, parasitic, mixed-premise nonproductives of the type nurtured by the current welfare state would certainly be a change for the better.

Cliche #12: Retreating is a "solipsistic" way of avoiding "the responsibility and the burden of steady, persistent, long-term social and political activity toward libertarian goals." Let us be activists and then, "even if the worst happens, we will have the great satisfaction of knowing that we didn't lose because of our own inaction or sloth, that we didn't fail because we betrayed our highest principles and ideals." (pp. 60,62).

Read: retreating is selfish; it is better to sacrifice your own personal safety and take on the burden of trying to reverse the thinking of over 200 million people bent on self-destruction, to save the tail of the guy who doesn't think he could make it in retreat. I'll grant you, there's a chance it could work, and if you're the type who gets kicks from bucking near-impossible odds, feel free. But remember, even a smart rabbit builds a back door to his burrow in case a snake slithers in the front!

Wouldn't the most die-hard activist, if he felt there was any real risk of failure resulting in economic, governmental, and social collapse, work more effectively for the "cause" if he knew he had a retreat to fall back on? The time that might otherwise have been spent on worry about the consequences of failure could instead be devoted to converting the masses.

Again, not everyone should have a retreat. But I do know it works for us. The time and energy we have put into preparing our haven has been paid back tenfold already in peace of mind. While others are hassling gas shortages, talking of famine, worrying over a doctors' or truckers' strike, or dreading civil unrest that may increase due to inflation, unemployment, or terrorist propaganda, we enjoy the advantages of being prepared. We can observe the flow of events as outsiders looking in. Whether or not you do likewise is up to you. That's freedom, isn't it?

Don Stephens was trained in architecture but has spent an ever-increasing portion of his time since 1964 researching, writing, and lecturing on personal survival and retreat preparation. His articles have appeared in Innovator, Atlantis Quarterly, Libertarian Connection, Preform-Inform, Inflation Survival Letter, and now regularly as physical survival editor of McKeever's MISL. He has received wide coverage in the general media and has lectured across the country. He and Barbie Stephens write, publish, and distribute a wide selection of materials for retreaters, ranging from maps and booklets to a new volume entitled A Survivor's Primer (And Retreater's Bibliography Too). He also provides consultation to individuals and groups. Copyright 1976 by Don Stephens.