Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Self-Sufficiency Fetish

No man is an island, entire of itself...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."
-- John Donne, Meditation XVII

Self-sufficiency, a.k.a. self-reliance or rugged individualism, is one of the great fetishes of American culture. To the self-sufficiency fetishists, being able to take care of oneself and pay one's own way is the opposite side of the coin of freedom. Sacrifice self-sufficiency and you have sacrificed freedom, they claim. Not to be able or willing to take care of yourself is to be an infant, whether your caretaker is a blood relative, a spouse, a paid caretaker or “Uncle Sam.”

The debate over health insurance reform has brought out the self-sufficiency fetishists in full force. They post comments all over the Internet decrying the idea of “socialized medicine.” They do not believe that health care is a human right but a “personal responsibility.” They are against any the government role in health care because people should take care of themselves. They see taxation to help other people to get health care as “confiscation” of their hard-earned money. (Strangely enough, they never see the ever-increasing premiums charged by private health insurance companies for ever-skimpier policies as “confiscation”).

There is one problem with this point of view.
Self-sufficiency does not exist. Unless you are grinding your own lenses, drilling your own teeth and making your own medicine, not to mention setting your own bones, stitching your own cuts and taking out your own appendix, you are not self-sufficient in health care. Doctors, nurses, dentists, pharmacists, optometrists, etc. have been helping you all your life. That's not self-sufficiency.

Oh, but you claim you are self-sufficient because you work for a living or own a business so you can pay for all this help! Well, let me not argue here the barbarism of paying to live on the planet on which you were born. I am content to ask you, Mr. and Ms. Self-Reliant, how did you get that job other than through the agency of someone else willing to employ you? Or how does your business thrive unless you have customers or clients willing to buy your goods or services? Is not the company you work for or the business you own dependent on other suppliers of goods and services? That's not self-sufficiency.

What about you, “trust fund baby”? Never had to work a day in your life? Then somebody worked for you so you could have that inheritance. Likewise, those of you ordinary folks lucky enough to marry rich depend on your spouse's (or ex's ) income. That's not self-sufficiency.

If, as a worker, you can purchase health insurance, which is a gateway to health care, not health care itself, it is because your employer provides a plan or you can afford the individual insurance market. Again, your ability to do this depends on others. The employer must provide the plan AND provide you with enough working hours to qualify, AND enough of a salary to afford your share of the premium--a 100% employer-paid plan being a rarity today--or enough of a salary for you to afford individual insurance. And if you are like most workers, there was little or no negotiation of salary when you were hired. You took the wage and benefits (if any) package offered. The amount and frequency of raises, bonuses or additional benefits are at your employer's discretion. Even if you are represented by a union, you may have seen a wage or benefit freeze or cut in recent years. Unionists are dependent on the skill of their negotiators. Represented or not, working “for a living” means an awful lot of dependence for someone who claims self-sufficiency.

Perhaps there was a time in this nation when there was such a thing as self-sufficiency. I remember going to a quilt exhibit in Indiana in the late '70's and seeing, in amongst the modern quilts, a 19th century quilt made by a woman who grew the plants from which she spun the thread to make the quilt, as well as the plants from which she made the dye for it. Then she made and dyed the quilt herself. THAT is self-sufficiency. (And even then, she might have had a midwife to help her give birth to her children, so health care, such as it was back then, was not always “Do It Yourself.”)

Today, when someone lauds the virtues of self-reliance, I think of the Unabomber, alone in his Montana shack, building his bombs. Yet even he biked into town once in a while for a sack of flour. If you believe the government accounts, the assassin is always a lone gunman. And I have never read a story of an old lady living alone with a lot of cats that made mention of her being on welfare. At least once a year, I read a story of someone who was discovered dead days, weeks, months, and in one case, two years after passing, without family and unmissed by neighbors or tradespeople. That's the gold standard of self-sufficiency.

We are not independent; we are interdependent. And though it costs us something to see that our neighbor is taken care of in times of need, we also benefit from our community's members being as strong and healthy as possible so that they all can contribute their time and effort in providing goods and services to the community according to their inclinations. That's where freedom comes in: freedom of choice in what we do with our lives. I fail to see freedom in people working a job, or two or three, just because it was what they could get to pay the bills. In this, Karl Marx was correct: “From each, according to his abilities. To each, according to his needs” should be the guiding principle of economics.

"That's Socialism!" you cry in horror. Yes, it is. So what? We are all members of a society. That is something the self-sufficiency fetishists have forgotten.