The Very Angry Tea Party (Part 3)

Dear Julian,

As always, many points of agreement and disagreement.

I apparently don’t know what you mean by “independence.”

There is legal/social independence, which does not exist apart from other people, and is in fact entirely dependent upon their agreement about your independence. This independence isn’t generally granted until you reach the arbitrary age of 21 years. It is removed when you are accused of a crime, and reinstated if you are acquitted. It is suspended if you receive certain random numbers in the mail during a general military draft. It is removed permanently if you are deemed (by others) legally incompetent. It is strictly curtailed in very specific ways any time you go to work for a corporation, extending to what you wear, fraternization with certain other employees, at what times you can attend to bodily functions, how frequently you may be ill — these constraints vary widely from corporation to corporation. There are unwritten but effectively-enforced rules of class behavior throughout any community, large or small. Only a century and a half ago, black people were chattel, entirely without legal or social independence. If my legal/social independence is not recognized by other people, then I am not in fact independent; if I try to act as though I am when I am not, I will be punished: the seventeen-year-old caught drinking alcohol, the accused criminal who jumps bail, the soldier who goes AWOL, the black slave who talks back to his master…. No aspect of this independence even exists outside the “intersubjective.”

There is physical independence. People can survive by themselves on deserted islands. But very few choose this kind of radical self-sufficiency, and even fewer survive for very long. I personally know none of them. I personally have only minimal wilderness survival skills.

Most amusing to me is the myth of the “self-made man,” the Independent Industrialist, which seems rampant in Libertarian talk, and seems central to the few passages of Rand that I’ve read (which you sent me a long time ago.) “Some of us prefer to make our own way in the world, rather than living off handouts” was one recent quote. The computer game Bio-Shock has made a rather heavy-handed parody of this philosophy.

I find the sentiment amusing, because I am John Galt. I have owned my own business and been my own captain of destiny since 1996. I am an inventor, an engineer, and a physicist. I provide valuable services, and negotiate payment in exchange, at whatever rate I feel the market will bear. But here is one illustrative paradox — throughout 2010, I have been working a contract paid by NASA, the government agency that defines “boondoggle” and “taxpayer waste” to many conservatives. Like BP, Lockheed-Martin, Haliburton, and all the parasites on K street in Washington DC, I am suckling at the government teat. I am living off other peoples’ incomes, through taxes confiscated from them by the Feds. Were it not for this contract, it’s very possible I would not be working at all, as was the case through most of 2009. Had it continued through 2010, I would very possibly be a candidate for welfare at this point.

So tell me, Julian — am I John Galt, or just another system-manipulating welfare leech?

I’ve spent quite a bit of time throughout my life thinking about these webs of interdependencies, and I have to agree with John Donne: no man is an island. There are no John Galts, and there are no welfare leeches. These are all fictions of prejudice, or alternatively, prejudices of fiction. What are real are simply people, living inextricably within a web of nested dependencies. Some take more, some give more. Simple-minded measures of worth, such as income and wealth, may be the best that simple-minded people living in simple-minded primate cultures can come up with, but it’s insufficient. Recognizing that is nothing more than an act of realism and humility.

It’s why we still have to be careful when we play God and decide who lives and who dies.

More to comment on…..

— Themon

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