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(This is the third in a series of four posts which discuss Tea Party “Political Fundamentalism”, comprised of the unholy trinity of “Constitutional Idolatry”, Liberty Idolatry, and Small Government Idolatry.)

In two previous posts, I discussed the insistence that individual liberty militates against the use of government to address issues that arise from mutual interdependence. Sometimes the interdependence itself is denied, sometimes the efficacy of using government to address it, though usually some muddled combination of the two.

Proving our interdependence, and how it is implicated in every aspect of our lives, is an easy task: How loud I play my stereo may affect how well my neighbor sleeps; how much water I pump from my well may affect how much water others have available, or if the aquifer itself gets spoiled; how I dispose of my waste may affect others’ health and welfare; how I raise my child may affect all of the people that my child affects in the course of her life. The list is endless, tentacles of interdependence permeating our existence.

But our interdependence is more than the sum of all of these isolated examples. It is the fundamental truth of our existence. Our market economy is not a means to our individual independence, but rather a vehicle for our collective interdependence, organizing a complex division of labor that produces the wealth from which we differentially benefit. Our religious beliefs, our private thoughts, our understanding of ourselves and our universe, are all culturally inherited collections of memes, only, at most, very marginally modified by any individual contribution. Every action or non-action we choose to engage in affects others, sometimes in reverberating and self-amplifying ways. A concept of “liberty,” raised to a sacred status, distilled into an absolute, and divorced from an understanding of the significance of our interdependence, is the conversion of a powerful positive force in human development into a powerful negative one.

Any casual consideration of the reality of our existence reveals, instantly, that “liberty” is not an absolute good: The liberty to kill anyone who you dislike would not be good. The liberty to dump your toxic waste into someone else’s well would not be good. More generally, the liberty to engage in actions that adversely affect others has to be weighed against the costs that it is imposing on others. Our interdependence is relevant. And each individual’s liberty is curtailed by every other individuals’ rights.

Therefore, despite our shared commitment to the value of liberty, our shared belief, that all things being equal, more liberty is preferable to less, it is a commitment that does not exist in a vacuum. It is not a value that trumps all other considerations. We are still called upon to consider how the actions of each affect the welfare of others, and we are called upon doing so in conjunction with our choices in how to govern ourselves.

It is not just a challenge of determining when one individual’s rights end and another’s begin, but also a challenge of understanding how the exercise of individual rights aggregate into system-wide consequences, and how those consequences also compel constraints on the scope of individual liberty. Children, for example, must be vaccinated to attend school, because too many unvaccinated children in close quarters day after day pose a serious danger of deadly epidemic. Our individual choices to emit greenhouse gases contribute to global warming which poses dangers of myriad kinds, including massive coastal flooding and widespread extreme weather events, as well as dramatic and highly consequential shifts in local climates worldwide. High velocity short-term stock market traders using high speed computers programmed with quick-hit algorithms can cause catastrophic market failures, such as the one that caused a rapid plummet in market values several months ago. Ignoring how the exercises of individual liberty implicit in these choices (not getting a vaccination, emitting unlimited greenhouse gases, and exploiting the market to everyone else’s potentially enormous detriment) affect others, and infringe on their liberties and rights, is pure folly.

The ideology of unadulterated absolute personal liberty is an insanity that ignores these irrefutable realities. But that doesn’t mean that the value of liberty cannot guide us. All we need to do is reconceptualize “liberty” as not only freedom from government, but also freedom to live and thrive, a reasonable broadening of the definition which can then guide us in how to use government to truly maximize our liberty. By this more reasonable definition, we have far more liberty than we have ever had before, liberty increased by technological and social institutional augmentations, rather than curtailed by blind ideological folly.

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  • sblecher:

    Another good essay. As Thomas Hobbes said, life without effective government is “nasty, brutish, and short.” This interdependence is also commonly called the social contract. The fictional character, John Galt rejected the social contract. I knew one or two people who claimed to be followers of Ayn Rand, but they were actually losers. Still there are people who claim they achieved success without any help. You know— abandoned at birth,raised by wolves.

  • The irony is that there’s no such thing as “success without any help,” not even by those abandoned at birth and raised by wolves. After all, doesn’t the help offered by the wolves count? The oxygen provided by plants? The food provided by the Earth? Interdependence (meaning dependence by each on others) isn’t just a social fact, it’s a biological fact. We are not isolated entities that exist in a vacuum, but rather threads in a living tapestry.

    On the social level, this fact defines who and what we are. Each individual is, both genetically and cognitively, almost entirely an amalgam of external influences, of inherited traits and thoughts and beliefs and modalities of thought. Our individuality is something that exists on the margins, something that is a subtle nuance, a variation on a theme, not the fundamental reality. We speak and think in languages invented by the many over the millenia; see the world through lenses and conceptualizations, practice religions, participate in markets, adhere to (or violate) laws and norms, believe in ideologies, all invented by others who preceded us.

    And the actions of each affect others. It’s ludicrous and arbitrary to say that it is alright to have laws which prohibit murder, but that it’s not alright to have laws that prohibit contaminating the environment, because the latter is somehow an infringement on some absolute “liberty” that the former is not.

    Liberty is a function of our interdependence, not a free-standing ideal that can or should exist in opposition to it. It is an expression of the entirety of what we are, an entirety forged through interdependence and given meaning in the context of interdependence. The loss of this understanding is a cultural disease too large and malignant to take lightly.

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