Let’s get one thing straight off the bat. Independence is not the same thing as freedom. Freedom is the absence of restriction, and independence is the absence of reliance. Now, it’s sometime true that reliance comes with restrictions, but not always. And most of the restrictions that come from reliance are socially good, even if they may seem onerous, like the company ban on porn. I am reliant on my wages, and therefore concede to the restriction that I not watch porn at work. (Do they allow porn breaks from work in France? Because I feel like this is a cause the French unions need to take up. Hollande knows what’s up. I’d move there in a heartbeat, and pay the 75% tax with a giant smile on my face.)
So now that we’ve dissociated freedom – which is universally a good thing, absent harm to others – from independence, maybe we can wonder aloud whether independence is really a good thing?
It sure sounds nice, of course, being completely unreliant on anything or anyone for one’s own existence, subsistence, happiness, or whatever else it is that you might want to attain. But it’s completely unrealistic.
Let’s take the average morning routine of a western, relatively affluent individual (me). I am sleeping in my bed, which consists of springs, wood, insulator, upholstery, and quilting, assembled in a diabolically comfortable package, by workers who are not likely to be American. The down comforter keeping me warm is the product of a careful calibration of fabric and goose, and assuredly has been tested for optimal heat retention and dissipation. My bedding accouterment – sheets, pillow covers, and duvet – have all been woven from carefully selected fabrics, solely for my sleeping pleasure. Finally, I am awoken by my iPhone, which descended from the heavens as one of Steve Jobs’ many gifts to humanity.
My point is not that, in taking a tiny slice of one’s life, it’s easy to point out immeasurable reliance on people, places, and things that rarely cross our minds. The point is that the reliance is a good thing. The interconnectedness of it all is what allows for it all. I’ve never been interested in the physics of springs or the right kind of goose to pluck feathers from in order to create a truly excellent sleeping experience. I am so glad that I didn’t need to learn how to fashion porcelain, install pipes, or implement a water treatment system, in order to be able to take a dump on a toilet. The same way that I’m sure other people are subconsciously glad that they didn’t have to master an archaic information system in order to get a timely and accurate bill from my company.
Humanity – both as individuals and nations – was certainly more independent centuries ago. Most individuals were farmers, and so could sustain themselves without help from others. (Well, except for the dubious proposition of a single individual running anything of note. Hence family farms, or slaves.) Now critics like to bemoan the demise of the small farmer, as though a return to the days of toiling are what we need to set us free from the injustices of modern life that the evil corporations force upon us.* Wrong. It is precisely because industrial agriculture takes advantage of economies of scale that the vast majority of individuals are now free to pursue activities outside of agriculture. If you don’t work in agriculture and you have even the slightest modicum of appreciation for your field of employment, you should thank Norman Borlaug, John Deere, and Monsanto.
As it turns out, dependence on others can actually increase freedom. So what’s so good about independence again?
As it turns out, not all that much. The myth of independence certainly carries with it some positive moral lessons. It suggests that it is a good thing when you work for your keep; that you shouldn’t have to have things handed to you. It inspires people to learn new skills, build better machines, to govern more democratically.
But all of those things can be cast as the moral lessons of dependence, too. You have to work for your keep because people are reliant on you, just as you are on them. We still need to learn new skills and build better machines, but not because we need to eliminate our reliance on the next guy. We do those things to find better solutions to everyone’s problems, not just our own, and we do it that way because it’s more efficient. I’m not an economist or a utilitarian (two types of individuals who like to assume a whole lot more than I do), but I’m tempted to use the phrase “maximizing our joint utility” here.
Democratic governance is particularly prone to the moral teachings of dependence. We don’t form governments to simply be independent of other governments. We form governments because we expect them, as our joint creation, to be reliant on our continued support, and to behave accordingly. That is, we expect them to be dependent on us, equally among all those governed, as we will assuredly be dependent on them.
So on this Independence Day, here’s one cheer for dependence, and another for remembering all the people, places, and things that we are dependent on, and who are dependent on us.
*Seriously, an article speaking ill of the valiant Hamburger on July 4th? Where’s Joe McCarthy when you need him? Clearly, this is much more inflammatory than a blog post denouncing independence.