Libertarianism, Independence, and Interdependence: Or, why humans need governments

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Declaration of Interdependence (Photo credit: Participatory Learning)

This link goes to a fine little film about the principles of libertariansim.  It does a really fine job of painting the libertarian position on rights, particularly property rights, based on the idea of independence.  A friend linked me to it many years ago.  Below is my response to it.

Something buzzed in my brain as I watched the little movie and I identified it as resistance. Watching carefully, I realized that my resistance was specifically to the word and concept “independence”. The whole libertarian stance stems from the idea that independence is the ideal, that because you “own” yourself, all efforts to share the products of your time and effort without your consent become theft.

I was introduced some years ago to the concept of interdependence. I didn’t know what to do with the concept at the time, but it resonated with me. The context in which I learned it (Stephan Covey’s classic -and misused- business book 7 Habits for Highly Effective People) did not lend itself to easy transfer to political situations, so mostly I just mulled the idea for a few years. I was reintroduced to it years later in the context of sociological ideas of systems theories, and I began to make the connection.

The concept of interdependence directly rejects the concept of independence as a pretty illusion. It takes the poetry of John Donne’s “No man is an island, entire of himself” and transfers it into the philosophical realm (not a far trip). The idea is that from birth, every human being is connected to other human beings, individually and in toto, and cannot survive without those other human beings.

It accepts and views as normal and natural that throughout the life cycle of humans, there are natural and circumstantial times when a person will be dependent on another for his or her needs, and other times in a life cycle when others will be dependent on the individual for his or her needs. It also accepts that there are times when that natural dependence coincides with a lack of “close” (family and friend) supports for that dependence, and that society has both a right and an obligation, as an aggregate of individuals, to step in at those times.

This is where the frission with independence comes in. If you accept interdependence, rather than independence, as the basis for human relations, with its vulnerabilities and rewards, you also accept that others have a stake in your life, a part ownership. Not a full ownership, but a minority share in the corporation of your life. The counterbalance to that is that you, in turn, have a share in society, the aggregate of those individuals who surround you.

If you accept that others have a stake in your life as you have a stake in theirs, then you understand the need for taxation for human welfare concerns. You welcome the wise use of that minority share in your life, because at some point in your life it will be normal and natural for you to rely on others.

I can hear the protests in the front row. “I’ they state, ” have never depended on anyone, and never will”. Really? Who changed your diapers? Who taught you how to function in the real world? If you were to become permanently and totally disabled, who would care for you? When you are aged and decrepit, who will change your diapers then? If you are unemployed for long enough that your savings run out, who will feed you and your family? If you are going through a huge transition in your life and it has left you depressed and anxious, who will you call on to calm you and soothe you? If you can name individuals, or system of individuals that are unique to you for all of these situations, congratulations. You are in a very small minority. Most people rely on societally provided (taxed or privately funded) institutions for one or more of these functions at some point in their lives.

Furthermore, it is in my interest as a self aware, interdependent person, to voluntarily give that portion of myself that is needed to maintain the interdependent functioning of the web. I will be using that web someday. So will you. Both of us already have, in some manner, or we would not be communicating. Too many things go in to the process of learning how to think, write, and use a computer for one person to learn “on their own”. To suggest that you have never been taught anything by anyone, and that the public schools that many have attended “never did any good” is incredibly insulting to all of those who had a stake in your upbringing and education, whether that education was public or “private”.

Unfortunately (and this is something I think that libertarians willfully ignore) the vast majority of people are both non self-aware politically and philosophically, and have no reliable compass with which to measure their long term self interest. Whether this is through the choice to be ignorant or the inability to grasp the ideas is irrelevant. These people will not tend to their own long term self interest, which affects your self interest and mine. This is why government was invented. That share which is humanity’s stake in you has to be administered.

Government is the attempt to administer that share, or more precisely, that portion of your share which isn’t met by private concerns. Sometimes, historically, it has been administered badly, and very occasionally, it has been administered well. A measure of a good government is whether it succeeds in its duties of helping those whose “close” (family, friends) interdependencies have failed without commandeering a greater than is accepted share in your stake, in the long term self interest of the entire aggregate of individuals in that society.

Oh my goodness…she left an ambiguity. I haven’t identified the “ideal” size of the share (or the government). Nor will I. Deal with it. Ambiguities are a part of real life. The size of the share that stakeholders have in your life is always negotiable in a truly interdependent society. It is determined essentially by the “market value” of that share: i.e. how much are you willing to give of yourself to ensure that that web of interdependence is well maintained for the benefit of humanity, and of yourself as a part of humanity?

If you say “none”, I call bullshit. Are you on one of those quasi military installations up in the hills that refuse to pay taxes? Do you pay the list price only, and no sales tax, for every item you buy in the store? You don’t? Then you have accepted the concept that the government is a lawful administrator for the stake that humanity holds in your life. Don’t try to tell me you have no choice. It’s a cop out. There is always a choice, if you want to truly be “independent”. You can find an uninhabited bit of land somewhere and make your own stone tools, alone. Make your own medicines when you are sick, alone, with knowledge you came up with, alone, after having been abandoned in infancy and raised by wolves. Then, and only then, are you truly independent — but wait, what about those wolves?

Accepting that you have a stake in humanity’s welfare and that they have a stake in yours is a moral choice. It is a choice specifically made by our founding fathers in the US in the preamble of the constitution, which defines the “mission” and “values” (in modern business terms) of the US government.

“Promoting the general welfare” is directly in lines with the teachings of that great educator, Yeshua ben Yosef, or as he is more commonly known, Jesus of Nazareth, in the Beatitudes. TheTorah supports it, and the Koran, and the great Hindu and Buddhist texts. The Witches rede leaves room for it. The nine noble virtues of the Asatru dwell within it. It is not necessary, however, for any religion to be involved in the moral decision to be a willing partner in the benefit of humanity rather than a self deluded “individualist” who denies that anyone from their parents to their teachers to their neighbors has any stake in their lives. It is only necessary to see that the self-interest of all humans incorporates the interests of others in each individual’s life.

Small government is not the same as no government. To accept the need for government is to accept a mutual stake in humanity. Once that point of agreement is made, we begin quibbling over details of how, what, how much, and when, but we have agreed on why. Why? — because we as human beings have a stake in each others’ welfare.

Belief in interdependence does not necessarily lead to a belief in big government. Some people choose to express their interdependence through large donations to charity, others through developing “free market” means to meet the natural lifespan needs and temporary emergency needs of humanity. Some people choose to spend their energy reforming governments who are poor administrators of their stakes in humanity. Some work within governmental or charitably supported institutions to directly meet the needs of people whose “close” networks have failed them.

Liberalism can embrace interdependence as a concept, because the basic underlying principle is that the well being of one person affects the well being of all. From that, liberal issues such as civil rights, freedom of thought and its outgrowths (speech, public gathering, etc.) come. Conservatives can embrace the idea because it does not negate in any way the idea of fiscal responsibility in government, and in fact supports it. Those who believe in rational gun laws can support it, because it can find a balance between their own and their neighbors’ well being. In fact, the concept of interdependence does away with a lot of the stark black and white contrast that is currently popular in governmental theory, stating instead that those beautifully textured and multicolored areas in the middle where many stakeholders have had their say are more appropriate for a free society.

Yes, you heard me, free. A free society is one where every person has a voice in the government, even if a small one, and a stake in it. TANSTAAFL (there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch) demands that we pay for that privilege by giving up a bit of our own stake, in the form of taxation and compromise. That’s the system our founding fathers set up, though the term hadn’t been invented yet. And so far, it’s a pretty good system. Let’s keep it that way by being more self aware of why it works.

  • Miss interdependent (rockingyourrole.wordpress.com)
  • We’re in this together: A pathbreaking investigation into the evolution of cooperative behavior (sciencedaily.com)
  • Stepping into the Vibrancy of Interconnectedness (urbantimes.co)
  • tipping sacred cows in the search for community (ahundredhands.wordpress.com)
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