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Friday, August 20, 2004
 
Self-Reliance is Slavery

Up on Noam Scheiber's blog, Scheiber substitute Josh Benson has a review of Tom Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas?, which attempts to answer the question of why so many economically disadvantaged whites in rural America vote for politicians who don't address their economic concerns.

In the course of the review, Benson brings up a very interesting question he says Frank "barely addresses" in the book: "How do these white, working-class Kansans process the economic implications of their vote?" He offers four possible perspectives they might be approaching this question from. They're all worth thinking about, but it's the first one that got my attention:

1: The cultural and economic appeal of the Republicans is one-and-the-same. The same religious ideas that sanctify unborn life also sanctify individualism, hard work, and personal responsibility, the tenets of Republican economic thinking. Society works best when communities and neighbors look after one another--not the federal government. Be disciplined and pious, and God will provide. In this worldview, the Democrats have got just about everything wrong.

Instead of relying on the government for assistance, people should rely on themselves. If things get really out of hand, your community will step up to help, presumably with the aid of (some of) the resources they're no longer giving to the government for this purpose. If your kid gets leukemia, the town can hold bake sales, car washes, and solicit donations to help you out. Appeals like this draw communities closer together, and give everyone concerned something to feel good about.

There's a problem, though: having your community be your safety net makes you less independent and self-reliant.

Federal programs are by definition impersonal. They have to be designed to help everyone who needs it equally. It's the law. If you meet the criteria, you can fill in the forms, get the help, and go about your business.

Communities, on the other hand, are free to excercise goodwill at their discretion. If community leaders don't like you, they're under no obligation to help you when you need it. To enjoy the security that collective mutual aid, one is obliged to submit himself personally to the whims and judgements of others.

Such an arrangement would give enormous power to those disposed to mold and enforce local norms. As everyone can easily envision needing help at some point in the future, it would become essential to win the approval of community leaders. A culture of conformity would quickly follow.

Cultures of conformity repress minorities, stifle new ideas, and engender xenophobia. While they're good at engendering and perpetuating political power, they're not good for much else.

The whole "self-reliance" thing isn't about people not wanting to be led, it's about people wanting leaders who are like themselves. That's why so many people who claim to hate any and all government power feel perfectly comfortable with George W. "Government Spending" Bush. For people like this, there's nothing more natural than the blind leading the blind.