25 July 2011

Responding to the "anti-self-reliance" crowd

Naturally enough, I regularly read about topics related to self-reliance. As I do, I occasionally come across people who are "anti-self-reliant." These people argue that people's lives in modern society are so interrelated that no one can be self-reliant anymore. This, of course, is absurd.

One recent example of this point of view was presented by Jonathan Rich in an opinion piece for redandblack.com, which is a student newspaper for the University of Georgia. To be fair, Rich's article is mainly concerned with justifying tax increases. However, his main method of doing so is by trying to demonstrate that self-reliance is an obsolete concept. Fairly early in the article, Rich presents this position:

However appealing self-reliance may be, it is actually nothing more than a comforting fantasy. And if we look closer, we can see something dark and cynical lurking underneath this illusion.
The myth of self-reliance obscures a powerful truth — wealth is a social creation, not an individual one. No individual could prosper without the group.
We are not self-reliant — we are socially reliant.

Before getting to the self- versus socially reliant part, it's worth exploring the concept of "wealth" first. The above excerpt assumes that "wealth" has one universal definition, which it does not. Perhaps, if one assumes that wealth equals only money, then wealth might be a social creation. Certainly, the US dollar can be seen this way, since that fiat currency only has value because the government says so (the money is not valued in gold or some similar standard). From that point of view, our currency is a "social creation" since we're all "agreed" that money has some value, rather than just being pieces of paper-like material.

In contrast, real wealth is made of the things you value and use in your life. Food has value. Water has value. Shelter has value. We trade money to get things of value, mainly because it's more convenient than bartering. However, people who are self-reliant have the capability to obtain more of the things they value on their own.

In my opinion, far too many modern Americans have been raised in environments where they aren't taught how to be self-reliant in any part of their lives. Instead, a majority of people assume that everything they need comes from somewhere "out there," from a magic infrastructure that produces anything and everything they'll ever want or need — if they can only make enough money to get it.

The problem is that sooner or later, that infrastructure will fail, at least for some period of time... days, weeks, months... who knows? For anyone thoroughly dependent on that infrastructure for everything, it could well be a death sentence.

Rich continues by saying that "an individual’s destiny is inexorably tied to the group as a whole." "Inexorably"? This smacks of black-and-white thinking, which is a fallacy. I fail to see how my "destiny" is tied to even my neighbor, let alone an entire city, or state, or country? Sure, there are significant events large enough to affect a broad population (e.g., natural disasters, economic problems, terrorist attacks, and so on) but it is the self-reliant people who will generally weather these traumas more easily than those who are wholly dependent on others.

I'm not suggesting here that we live in isolation, or that others' fates don't matter to us. The lives of others do frequently impact us on some level, even if we merely empathize with them and their struggles. But, we can only support others adequately — in fact we can only help them at all — when we are able to take care of our own needs first.

This is concept summed up in the the directions given by flight attendants: "In case of a cabin depressurization, put on your own oxygen mask first, before helping others." This critical advice allows you to breathe and not pass out, which then allows you to help your neighbor. The same basic principle generally applies for broader disasters too. By making sure we can survive, we can help our family, and then in turn our neighbor, and ultimately the larger community.

Next, Rich states that "we don’t grow our own food, pick our own cotton and sew our own clothes, pave our own roads, build our own homes, perfect our own medical technology, harness our own electrical grids or treat our own sewage."

Well, actually, there are people who do many of these things, and a few that do all of them. Sure, that's not a majority, but I'd argue that most people should be able to do more of these things. As one recognizes the importance of self-reliance, it's likely that they'll begin to do more and more for themselves. At the very least, a person living self-reliantly will be aware of where they are dependent on others. What's more, they will likely have plans to reduce that dependency, or at least prepare for any interruptions or changes that may occur.

Late in his article, Rich makes a final jab at self-reliance:
And worse still, self-reliance prevents us from uniting as a group to affect [sic] social change.
Social movements don’t happen when we imagine ourselves as disparate individuals. Change occurs when we recognize ourselves in others, not when we pretend we exist only for ourselves.
I contend that if more people were self-reliant and minded their own business, "effecting social change" wouldn't be necessary. All too often, "social change" is usually code for "making others abide by my opinions and feelings." That runs counter to the original American spirit.

This entire section smacks of the typical socialistic mentality that seems to currently pervade our colleges. But, to "pretend we exist only for ourselves"? Who else do we exist for?

In the end, each of us are the greatest champion for our own wants, desires, and needs (as discussed in one of my earlier posts). Few others, if anyone, will be. Sure, there will be others that care, and some may help us when we need it. But, each of us needs to be responsible for responding to, and influencing, the events that happen in our own lives.

Personal responsibility is at the heart of self-reliance, and we must live it, no matter how "socially interdependent" others would like to delude us into believing we are.

What do you think? Do you feel that you're self-reliant or socially reliant? If the latter, what are you doing to change that?


  1. I tend to agree with you quite a bit. If we rely too much on others, then when we have to rely on ourselves, would we be able too?

    I am not completely self-reliant and more than likely never will be, but at the same time, I don't want to have to wait days or weeks for someone else to "help" me, while I am sitting in some shelter someplace with 100s or 1000s of other people. That just goes against everything that I was taught growing up and what I learned in the Coast Guard. Semper Paratus.

    I guess the song A Country Boy Will Survive fits how I feel about self-sufficiency. My beliefs are not the same as many in the general population today or those who want people to depend too much on others, but I feel very comfortable with being as self-reliant as possible.


  2. Harold,

    Thanks for the comment!

    You're right — "complete" self-reliance is very difficult, and likely beyond the majority. I'm not that way, nor do I strive to be.

    I think one of humankind's strengths is our ability to collectively surpass our individual talents.

    That said, I believe that we each need to be able to stand (metaphorically) on our own two feet before we can work together effectively.