In a new wave of the use of Colorado Confluence, I have begun posting pithy passages on the Facebook page, in colorful boxes with fancy fonts (please stop by and check them out: http://www.facebook.com/ColoradoConfluence). One such passage is:
“Extreme individualists don’t get that we are in reality interdependent. Empathy is a good thing, that enriches us all. And there is nothing about ‘the state’ that makes it a social institution that must never, by some bizarre and arbitrary moral imperative, be used as a vehicle for our empathy and interdependence.”
A commenter named “Richard” replied, “Interesting thought, but how does that allow anyone access to other’s funds JUST BECAUSE they have more?”
To which I responded:
Richard, we start from two distinct premises, operating within two distinct cognitive frames. The first step is to recognize these two distinct frames.
One frame (yours) is that we are primarily individuals, whose relative wealth and welfare is primarily a product of our own actions and merit, that the society we belong to is nothing more than a contractual relationship among otherwise absolutely mutually independent individuals, and that justice requires a clear public recognition that “what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is yours, period.”
Another frame (mine) is that we are simultaneously individuals and members of a society, that our individual existence is as much a function of our being members of a society as our society is a function of our being individuals, that we speak and think and feel within the framework of languages and cultures and conceptualizations that we did not individually invent, that our individuality is a marginal variation of a shared consciousness and shared existence, and that the welfare of each of us is the responsibility of all of us.
In my frame (as in Ben Franklin’s, I might add), all wealth belongs simultaneously to the individual and to the society, since both are implicated in its production. Certain, substantial, extensive protections of the individual claims on that wealth are both functional and fair, but so are certain, substantial, extensive protections of the societal claims on that wealth.
It is a balancing act, rather than absolutely one or the other. An unintended consequence of our founding ideology was a weakening of the implicit recognition that we are interdependent members of a society, something the founding fathers didn’t really have to worry about, because that interdependence was so universally historically unchallenged that they did not have any experience within which to identify any concern for its continuation. (The unlimited pursuit of absolute “liberty” is similar to our craving for sugar, salt, and fat: In the African savanna in which we evolved, we could never get enough of those essential food-stuffs, so we evolved to crave as much as we could get. Similarly, in the 18th century, it was hard to imagine getting enough “liberty,” so we cultivated an ideology that only craved ever more of it.)
So, your cognitive frame of “what’s mine is mine” is not necessarily the only rational or functional or moral cognitive frame, and it is, arguably, less rational and functional and moral than one which recognizes our interdependence, recognizes that members of a society generally are involved in the production of wealth and welfare in that society generally, and that the distributional injustices embedded in the system (through differential inheritances and birth into differing opportunity structures, for instance) are our shared responsibility to remedy. (End of response to Richard)
I titled this post “The War of American Interdependence” because we won the war of Independence, which turned out not to be just a war of independence from Great Britain, but also from one another. In fact, we have been fighting the war of independence from one another for the past two centuries, and those who have been on the side of increasing mutual independence have generally been in reality fighting for their own advantage in the context of inescapable interdependence.
Throughout our history, there have be those who have insisted that “liberty” means “my liberty to screw others.” No one shouted “Liberty!” louder than southern white slave owners, insisting that it would be an infringement on their liberty to free the slaves (see John C. Calhoun’s “Union and Liberty,” for instance). Then, when they lost that battle for American (pseudo)-mutual-independence, they re-emerged in the form of southern racists defending Jim Crow against the “tyranny” of the federal government.
It should come as no surprise, then, that they have re-emerged in our own age, reincarnated to protect that institutionalized inequalities of opportunity and privilege that exist today. Again, we have many shouting “Liberty!” as a rallying cry against increasing equality of opportunity in America, and decreasing a gross and indefensible concentration of wealth in far too few hands.
It doesn’t matter to them that the distribution of wealth in America is much more a function (as a matter of statistical fact) of what womb you are born into than how hard you work. It doesn’t matter to them that we are the most economically inequitable of all developed nations (and, largely as a result, perform worse by almost every measure of social wellbeing). It doesn’t even matter to them that this grossly inequitable distribution of wealth and opportunity is bad for the economy as a whole, record-breaking concentrations of wealth immediately preceding major economic collapses.
All that matters to them is that they have an ideology that blindly defends this status quo, and blindly rejects all reason and compassion militating against it.
So now I declare the War of American Interdependence, the war to become a society once again, to recognize that we are not just a collection of disaggregated individuals, but rather are intertwined in numerous ways, along numerous dimensions, and with numerous responsibilities to one another as a result.
Freedom is a wonderful thing, but it must be the real freedom to thrive rather than the false freedom of social incoherence. Freedom must be an expression of our social existence, rather than an obstacle to it. We must strive not just to be a ”free” people, but also to be a humane people.