Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Liberty and Interdependence

Anyone who glances at election results during political seasons knows that there seems to be no truth more incontrovertible than that the more people a concentrated in a geographical area, the more left-leaning they become. I'm sure there are significant exceptions to this, but on the whole urban areas are far more likely to vote for the left, while right-wingers are much more common in suburbs, small towns, and rural areas. These facts seem paradoxical at first. Small towns, where everyone knows everyone else's business and all of life is built around the community, seem to be populated by people who vote for an individualistic "get the government off my back" agenda; whereas large cities, where no one makes eye contact and countless people rush on by homeless beggars, are populated by people mostly voting for more collectivist policies.

This is probably not as paradoxical as it seems. Conservatives, at least, are not so hard to understand in this picture. It is probably just because people in small towns have already built up community and civic life that more or less works that they are skeptical of government intervention. Why should the federal government impose further mandates upon those who already take care of each other? In a small town or rural area, it is much easier to trust your neighbor, who is always close by, than the government, which is always far off. Since everyone generally knows each other, your neighbors are much less likely to be dangerous; in fact, they are likely to be quite helpful if you face an unexpected problem. Why depend on the state or federal government, which is made up of people you rarely see (if ever) and whom you have no reason to trust, when help is so close to home?

Despite all our supposed individualism, all of us crave this kind of close-knit community, and we generally seek to find it in some measure. However, the number of people living in a city guarantees that this community city-dwellers seek can never be the same as the city they live in. Even in a moderately large town it quickly becomes evident that most people we see daily will be unfamiliar. Because of this unfamiliarity, the more people live in the city, the less trust exists between them. There will emerge many separate communities within the city, which will often misunderstand each other and perhaps be inclined to antagonize one another. Lack of personal contact means that only stereotypes and vague feelings can determine the general behavior of people toward one another.

For these reasons, in a city it is probably inevitable that people cling more to vague generalizations rather than dealing in concrete facts. Broad sentiments about which group of people is suffering at the hands of which other group of people will be easy to spread, with little chance of being corrected by actual experience. It is easy to see the effect this will have on politics. Politicians will be successful in gaining support from urban areas by seeming to best represent those groups of people which are commonly perceived to make up the underprivileged class. Because general sentiments take precedence over concrete facts, this support is likely to have very little to do with whether the policies of these politicians do anything to help those said to be in need. It is the abstract association that counts politically.

Both conservatives in small towns and liberals in urban areas base their political views on what are largely myths. Conservatives, on the one hand, seem to believe that by being left alone, they may be better off. Liberals, on the other, believe that heroic politicians who stand up for the little guy will shift the balance of power enough to make a difference. I don't know whether people on either side will actually defend these ideological myths if pressed, but these myths, however much they have been discredited, still seem to exert a considerable amount of force in the political arena.

My general impression of "libertarians" growing up was that they were people who wanted to be left alone even more than conservatives. This is what always kept me away from libertarianism: it seemed to argue not for a society but an anti-society. I do not know whether most people who call themselves libertarians fall into this category, but I have certainly met some interesting people (read "wackos") out there. This is obviously not the right ideological response to the conservatives and liberals of American politics.

In fact, the case for personal liberty does not start with fierce individualism, but with interdependence; it's not that we don't need each other, but just the opposite: we depend on each other. The original genius of Adam Smith, carried through by many brilliant thinkers to today, is that people can achieve the greatest common good by working toward their own goals, guided more by general principles than by specific mandates. It is counter-intuitive, but nevertheless absolutely true, that human beings who know nothing about each other can support one another as each of them pursues different goals. The vast majority of people alive in the world today are constantly aiding one another, whether they know it or not.

Both conservatives and liberals tend to fancy themselves greater fans of true freedom than the other side. Since freedom is such a valued concept in America, we all tend to shape it in our own image. Any solid idea of freedom eventually gets boiled down into vague feelings that can be accepted by a large number of people. It seems to me that both the Left and the Right are far from really understanding freedom. Freedom is neither about being self-sufficient nor about having as much as everyone else.

If I had to boil down freedom to a general feeling, I would say freedom is about being open to new possibilities. We don't know, and we shouldn't try to know, what the net result of various human interactions will be. We do depend on one another, but in pursuit of what goal? The true lover of freedom is the one who believes that humanity is united in a pursuit wholly unknown to us, because it is so far from being the kind of goal which a single individual can have in his mind.

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