Self-Reliance, Atomism and Solipsism

35 Xenon atoms arranged by IBM scientists

The drumbeat from conservatives about self-reliance is deafening, when it isn’t jejune. It’s like the flag: something only conservatives can claim. To hear them tell it, all liberals foster a sense of dependency, amorphous but focused on government aid; they teach people to avoid self-reliance.

Like all conservative virtues, it isn’t enough to adopt the value, you have to deny that anyone else has it, and you have to exaggerate its importance at the expense of every other virtue and value. Conservatives preach self-reliance to minimize the claims of society on the individual. Taxes are slavery and theft, and interfere with self-reliance by eating up money the individual could use to be self-reliant. Medical care is available to the self-reliant, those who can pay. You get the education you can pay for and no more.

Capitalism reinforces this view. It preaches that the free market will provide the solution to every problem, and that any interference with its workings will be a disaster for everyone. Conservatives buy this idea, without bothering to explain why self-reliant people might choose to rely on government to provide things they need, like a guaranteed pension, or medical care in old age, or a leg up in education. In fact, conservatives agree that government can do some things, including things they can’t do for themselves, like enforce their weird sexual beliefs on other people.

Anyway, as I was saying, capitalism reinforces conservatives in disrespecting government. After all, if government provides it from taxes, how is a capitalist supposed to profit? Capitalism supports the odd idea that self-reliance means that you always buy from capitalists, and that you reduce the things you buy from government to the few things that capitalists haven’t figured out how to provide at a profit.

Self-reliance means strictly refusing to call on other members of society in the form of government to ameliorate the problems created by capitalism. Over time, this leads to a sense that one is alone, struggling against dark forces to survive. We are each Howard Roark or John Galt. We each face an epic struggle in the fight against the chains of the weak gathered into a mob, trying to drag down our genius.* We are alone, an atom in a soup of atoms, all seeking to incorporate us into their molecule. We have to resist the urge to connect because it interferes with self-reliance. Pretty exciting, isn’t it? Your hum-drum existence is a war you only win with personal virtue.

Live like that for a while, and you begin to realize something: other people don’t matter except as they can be of service to you. The benign form of this view is business networking. Every social event becomes an opportunity to connect with people who can do something for you. Of course, in this form, you have the duty to do something for them in return, it’s all part of the great circle of connection. In the cancerous form, other people become objects, useful only to the extent they can do something for you. The climbers of the greasy pole** take favors, but only return favors in ways that benefit them. We call these people as solipsists or CEOs: they do not believe that we actually exist apart from our utility to them. It’s a nicer term than sociopaths.

When Ron Paul was asked about people who don’t have insurance and need medical care, he said people should be self-reliant, and take their own risks. People screamed “Yes” when Wolf Blitzer asked if that meant the guy should just die. Paul replies that he should rely on his neighbors because that is cheaper, as if money were the only determinant of the situation.*** Again, why wouldn’t you use government to deal with this problem? It’s a lot fairer than relying on Churches and your next-door neighbor, and it avoids the free rider problem.

To make this work, people have to believe that they can get rich, if only they work hard enough. So here’s a story. A bunch of us went to supper between staging rehearsals, about the time of the Bush tax cuts for the rich. That subject comes up when someone says that she plans to pay for supper from her share of the cuts. Another guy explains that it’s great that the cuts favor the rich because he plans to be rich himself, and he doesn’t want to pay taxes. Well, this guy is a good singer, but no director is going to tap him on the shoulder if the tenor falls ill and send him out to save the show and launch his big opera career. His day job is bar-tending. So I ask how he plans to get rich. He’s got this great invention, he says, and it will make a fortune. What should I have said? Fortunately someone said something funny, and things moved on.

One way to exploit that value and that ignorant belief is the independent contractor game. You are a truck driver. Your employer comes to you and says that you are being terminated, but they will sell you your truck and you can drive for them as an independent contractor. It’s great, they say, you work for yourself, and after you pay off the purchase price, you own your own equipment. Here’s a description of the outcome for drivers at the Port of Oakland. It’s ugly.

But, that is the conservative view in a nutshell, espoused by the likes of Eric Cantor in his speeches about the wonderful Republican plans for the poor: everyone can get rich in America. Be self-reliant, at the expense of any other value. Don’t make demands on society. Don’t expect the rich to pay taxes to support society. They earned it, so can you. It’s theirs, and you have to live with yours.

Well, maybe that works in Lake Woebegone, where all the children are above average. In the real world, we learn that all values conflict with other values. We deal with these conflicts by learning to moderate the demands of one value with the demands of others. But then, moderation isn’t a conservative virtue, is it?
*See The Reactionary Mind, by Corey Robin, chapter 3. The book will be the subject of our book salon on February 25, and I am really looking forward to it. This chapter can be found here; it makes a great read before the book salon if you can’t get the book.
**This felicitous term comes from Halting State by Charles Stross, which also includes this joke: “there were only a thousand real people in the UK – everybody else was a non-player character”, a zombie.
***Here is his answer as reported by the LA Times:

“I practiced medicine before we had Medicaid, in the early 1960s when I got out of medical school,” Paul said. “I practiced at Santa Rosa Hospital in San Antonio. And the churches took care of them. We never turned anybody away from the hospitals. And we’ve given up on this whole concept that we might take care of ourselves and assume responsibility for ourselves, our neighbors, our friends; our churches would do it. This whole idea — that’s the reason the cost is so high. The cost is so high because we dump it on the government. It becomes a bureaucracy. It becomes special interests. It kowtows to the insurance companies, then the drug companies.”

My dad was a doctor. He used to say that Medicare and Medicaid made him wealthy, because suddenly he was getting paid for care he used to deliver for free. Not even his beloved Fox News could persuade him that these programs were a bad idea. So props to Dr. Paul for consistency.

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