The American Dream of a Life in a Vacuum
Today, living a free life in the land of the free isn’t about setting up barbed wire around one’s own little plot and hammering down “Trespassers will be Shot” signs, it’s about accepting the fact that we are both tread-ers and tread-ees, and we should think and act accordingly.
At the foundation of modern American conservatism is the notion of personal responsibility. Our choices are our own, and if we suffer from our choices, that’s our own fault; and inversely, if our choices bear a fruit, that fruit is entirely our own too. But to reason this way would be to consider our actions as though we lived in a vacuum. Our choices would be entirely self contained, and would have no impact on the environment in which they took place. But can we really reason in such a way in the world we live in today, when the simple act of buying a smartphone reverberates throughout both hemispheres?
To consider the issue on a more local scale, take agriculture. Proponents of personal liberty and responsibility will gladly tell you that if you want to eat produce that isn’t full of chemical garbage, then buy produce that isn’t full of chemical garbage, don’t attempt to reform the system so that no produce is full of chemical garbage. Except that even if I buy organic produce that has been traced as being the product of responsible, sustainable agriculture, odds are that a few kilometers away is a massive industrial farm where hundreds of gallons of pesticides are sprayed into the soil, and once they enter they don’t just disappear. Mother nature propagates it all throughout the land, completely disregarding the cultural construct that is private property, and so, despite paying for an organic product, I end up suffering from the negative consequences of eating chemical garbage because of other people’s economic choices.
Thus we see, in this example that, no matter the thought I put into my choices, my health isn’t entirely in my own hands. My snake has been indirectly tread upon, and, what’s more, it is indirectly tread upon so often that it basically isn’t even my snake anymore. When I walk or ride a bike, or even use public transportation services in the city because I refuse to contribute to terribly poor air quality and the heightening of everybody’s chance of contracting lung cancer, I still have to suffer the negative impact, or the externalities, as an economist would call them, of the harmful economic choices of my less thoughtful compatriots.
And I do not mean to infer that I myself am perfect and that my economic choices are so well thought that they have absolutely no external impact. We all have to be fully aware that, chances are, most of the economic choices we make on a daily basis will have an impact on the people around us, the society we live in, or even people across the world. At least to a certain extent, we bear the responsibilities of these effects, whether they be positive or negative. Therefore, while it may be primordial that we remember to put our money where our mouths are: businesses don’t speak English, or French, or Japanese; businesses speak money, and that’s the only way they’ll listen; it remains that nobody’s perfect, and to attain a lifestyle with null negative impact on one’s surroundings is an impossible task. We all make purchases with harmful production techniques out of necessity, or indulge in certain harmful behaviors, and therefore we must always remember to consider our actions within the society in which they truly exist.
Since it is necessary that we all have an effect on each other’s lives, it is only fair that we help each other in the battle for or against those effects. If I choose to drive a diesel-powered car in a congested city on a daily basis, it is most certainly my responsibility to contribute to the healthcare bills of my fellow city-dwellers if they suddenly contract cancer, since I am contributing to a heightened risk. But you might say: I don’t drive a diesel truck, so why should I pay? Well to read this article you most likely paid for energy to be able to charge a computer or phone battery, energy which may have come from a coal plant, or, in any case, the production of which carries some sort of environmental impact. In today’s world where we all impact each other’s lives, we’re also all responsible for each other.
From a political standpoint, this would provide a liberty-based rationale for the preeminence of a public healthcare system, where, through taxes, we all fund our healthcare together, and thus accept and complete our interdependence.
Since we clearly don’t live in a vacuum, why do we always try to act like we do? In the words of Aristotle,
“Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god. ”