Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Encouraging Self-Reliance through Liberal Ideals

One of the biggest complaints against liberal ideals (especially socialism) is that it increases dependence and decreases self-reliance. And I think we can all agree that self-reliance is incredibly important and should be encouraged.

Which is why I am liberal.

Let me explain.

In its purest since, true self-reliance would involve complete economic (and, arguably, social) isolation. You can't be "self-reliant" if you rely on a grocery store for your food; you can't be "self-reliant" if you rely on an electric company for your access to information; you can't be "self-reliant" if you rely on teachers – at church or at school – to teach your children.

While some strive to exemplify this "pure self-reliance" – which they have the right to do – most people who value self-reliance recognize that this is an extreme. Most who advocate economic self-reliance do so in reference to "working hard" and "making sacrifices" – all of which I highly value – implying that by doing the latter they achieve the former.

Therein lies the rub.

In our system, economic independence is no longer tightly connected with self-reliance. You don't get paid based on how hard you work or how much you sacrifice; if it were so, then the single mother working 60+ hour weeks, giving up time with her children in order to feed them, would be earning significantly more than she does.

Instead, our system rewards those that provides what "society values." Note: this isn't "society" in terms of what benefits the society as a whole. This is "society" in terms of what makes our lives easier, keeps us entertained, and distracts us from reality: the college football coaches who make millions, even though football programs lose millions of dollars each season, on the backs of unpaid and overworked students; the business owners who cut-corners and underpay their workers to fund their vacations; the companies who promote the culture of sexual objectification and perpetuate destructive body images to make profit. Because this is what pays in our economic system, these are the values that it encourages. 

Under this system, working hard and making sacrifices does not guarantee economic success (as evidenced of many hard-working people fighting off poverty), and economic success is not an indicator of having worked hard and made sacrifices (as evidenced by those who live off an inheritance). So if you want people to be self-reliant, then we should reward those who typify self-reliance – those who work thankless and difficult jobs at long hours to provide for their families, those who sacrifice their own desires to put the needs of others before their own, and those who have faced the difficult choices of those in poverty, like choosing between food and medicine.

Our government was formed "by the people, for the people, and of the people." I believe this with all my heart.

Therefore, I believe it is completely within our rights to advocate for a more just economical system, one that rewards individuals not just for how much they can make in the free market system, but also for how much they exemplify the values of self-reliance.

If you save lives, protect lives, or build lives, your work should be rewarded. If you put the needs of other people over your own, you should not have to worry about feeding your family. If your family may not see you again because you are saving someone else's, you should feel that you are invaluable to your community. If you work long hours at an unappreciated job to make sure your children are fed and clothed, you should know that your hard work is valued.

Some of these individuals are paid for by the government because they provide a public service that doesn’t demand payment upon receipt. You don't have to write a check out to the fire department before they save your home; you don't have to have cash on hand before the police will arrest a burglar; you don't have to swipe your debit card before you drop your kid off at school. We pool our resources, and we all benefit. We do this willingly because we recognize the value in it. And if we want to continue to have access to these wonderful services that benefit us all, then we should support actions that reward them for their dedication and sacrifice.

Others are paid by a system that recognizes that people will do just about anything to survive and feed their families – the same system that has a history of slavery, indentured servitude, and child labor. The free market system works because the vendors and consumers agree on a price and, unless the product will save your life, there’s little pressure to accept unconditionally. Many workers don’t have the luxury of being picky about their wages; some pay is better than none, and living on beans and rice is better than starving. If it means working 60 hours a week at two minimum wage jobs to survive, then that’s what they’ll do.

Advocates of the free market system laud the benefits of mutually agreed upon prices by vendors and consumers; why should they then balk at mutually agreed upon wages between employer and employee – after all, is not the employer paying for the services of the employee? Free market advocates should clamor to support the rights of workers to negotiate their wages and therefore unconditionally support unions and government-guaranteed rights to negotiated wages. If businesses want to pay low wages, then they have to find someone who is genuinely willing to work for low wages, not just because they have no other choice – just like they would have to find someone who is willing to buy their product. A free market system cannot exist if one is not truly free – if the threat of starvation or death is imminent. 

If you support a definition of self-reliance that can be measured by economic stability, then you must advocate a system that economically rewards self-reliant individuals. If they are working full-time and doing a good job, pay them commensurately so that they don't have to rely on the government. If they need an education or special training to get a job, make it economically within their reach. If they need someone to watch their kids while they try to improve their lives, then provide affordable childcare. If you think they should just "find another job," then we have to make sure that other jobs aren't being shipped overseas. And in case you didn't know, these ideas form the bedrock of the liberal economic agenda.

We live in an inter-dependent world. No one becomes rich without relying on their employees, their customers, and their stockholders; no one succeeds without help from teachers, doctors, family, and friends. We are all dependent upon other people, be they our customers, clients, employees, friends, doctors, family, religious leaders, or employers. And self-reliance in this inter-dependent world means that we all contribute, we all work hard, and we all sacrifice. 

Therefore, far from decreasing self-reliance, liberal ideals facilitate it by rewarding those who embody its ideals: Increasing pay for teachers, police officers, and others who put the needs of others above their own; rewarding those who work desperately hard to provide for their families; supporting unions that extend the free market system to worker wages, giving workers the ability to negotiate their pay and shape their own future; encouraging programs that provide opportunities for those that are willing to make sacrifices to create better life for themselves. 

Liberalism does not threaten self-reliance; it encourages it. 

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